This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2000
A new currency in south London: the arrival of 'time money' in Lewisham
They are trading in a new currency in south-east London. For the last few months, local people in the Catford area have been able to earn and spend time, building up their credit balances (or overdrafts) in the time bank held at the neighbourhood health centre.
The idea comes from America, where time dollars have in recent years become a familiar concept in many urban community regeneration schemes. But what might seem like the latest whacky American import certainly seems to be working for members of the Catford scheme. Hyacinth Thomas, for example, has built up several hours worth of credit in the time bank by visiting a elderly blind woman in her area, and has now been able to spend some of these savings. "Ive got a lot of garden furniture, but the garden shed was leaky. I have used the time Id got from chatting to the old lady to get the shed done," she says. "The time bank is a very very good idea."
Another member of the scheme, Mary Millar, is a wheelchair user who has been using time money to arrange to be taken out of her house on trips. In exchange, she has been busy utilising her baking skills to produce traditional sponge and butterfly cakes. She says that the time bank scheme not only works as a way of exchanging good turns within a community, it has also been enjoyable.
The idea of time money is closely related to that of the community-based Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) which have developed in recent years in many parts of the country, with their own unofficial currencies of favours. Like LETS, time money offers a way of helping to regenerate local communities and to support people who find themselves economically marginalised by the conventional money system.
But according to David Boyle, an associate of the New Economics Foundation and author of a recent book on alternative currencies Funny Money, there are also differences. "With LETS you ring up another member and negotiate a price. With the time bank, an hour is always worth an hour. You phone up the bank - the broker and software makes the match for you," he says. He adds that LETS are unlikely to be able to reach some members of the community, for example the elderly or housebound.
David Boyle sees time banks as potentially fulfilling an important role in rebuilding community life. "There are places on both sides of the Atlantic where the disappearance of the formal economy has been followed by the decline of the social economy. Time banks are a way of trying to make a community work again," he says. With the governments launch of its National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal earlier this month and with interest growing in the idea of building up social capital within communities, time banks may be about to come in for some close scrutiny.
There are now about a dozen pioneering time banks in Britain, with the idea most developed by the Fair Shares organisation in Gloucestershire. The Catford scheme is a joint initiative of the New Economics Foundation and the local Rushey Green group practice, which has a history of developing progressive approaches to health care. Much of the impetus for the time bank comes from one GP at Rushey Green, Dr Richard Byng, who was inspired by hearing an account of the American experience from Edgar Cahn, creator of the time dollar concept. "We know that prescribing drugs is not the answer to everyones health problems. Setting up a time bank is an opportunity for us to help and hopefully heal each other," Richard Byng says.
Rushey Green practice will be evaluating not only whether time bank members benefit economically but also whether their health is helped. Hyacinth Thomass example suggests that this may indeed be the case. She admits that the death of her mother two years ago and the break-up of her marriage left her very depressed. "I was really low. I used to sit at home, just wake up and sit and watch TV all day. The time bank is what brought me out," she says. She describes how her life now includes participating in an Afro-Caribbean womens performance group, which visits schools and old peoples homes and on one memorable occasion recently performed in Cologne.
For Hyacinth Thomas as for David Boyle, the community aspect of the time bank is important. "Long ago neighbours would do things for one another. The time bank is about bringing back a friendly neighbour attitude," she says.
Whilst time banks can be run informally, David Boyle recommends that groups use the manual and software developed in the USA by Edgar Cahn. This can be downloaded from the New Economics Foundation web site, www.neweconomics.org, where more information about time money is also available.
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