Andrew Bibby


Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Time banks in Britain

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Observer, 2001

For local people in the Gorbals, time can, quite literally, be money. This inner-city area on the south bank of the Clyde in Glasgow is one of the latest places in Britain to launch its own time bank, an ingenious scheme which converts the hours which people spend within their community voluntarily helping each other into a new type of tradeable currency.

Since its launch at the start of the year [2001], the Gorbals Time Bank has attracted about sixty members, who between them have ‘earned’ and ‘spent’ about a hundred hours of time. "It’s been very successful. For example, one older lady who had been waiting four years for her kitchen to be decorated joined the Time Bank and got it done within a month," says Colin McGowan, the scheme’s co-ordinator. "In exchange, she sits in with a disabled person living in the next close to her, befriending her — that’s what she puts back in."

As with traditional bank accounts, the Gorbals Time Bank records each member’s credit or debit balance of ‘hours’, with each new transaction carefully recorded on specialist software. Colin McGowan, who works for the area’s regeneration organisation Gorbals Initiative, puts members in touch with each other, and sees the time bank as one way of helping to rebuild the old community spirit which the area lost in the extensive urban redevelopments of the 1960s. "A lot of people have been living in high-rise places where they never knew their neighbours. My job is to bring people together again," he says.

The idea of trading in time came to Britain about four years ago from the United States, where the community activist Edgar Cahn has developed a network of similar community-based schemes trading ‘time dollars’. Joy Rogers of Gloucester-based Fair Shares, a local charity which launched the first British time bank in October 1998, says that the scheme can help people who have been marginalised by the traditional economy. "It enables people who feel that they have nothing to give to recognise that they have something to offer. But unlike traditional volunteering, this is reciprocal. The idea of reciprocity is very important."

Fair Shares, together with the New Economics Foundation (NEF), recently launched an umbrella organisation Time Banks UK which, with government funding, is trying to develop the idea. According to NEF’s Sarah Burns there are currently 18 active schemes operating in Britain, with a further twenty or so being planned or in development, often with help from community development agencies and local authorities. Support sometimes comes from unexpected places: in Catford, south London, for example, a local GP was instrumental in establishing the local time bank, convinced that healthy community networking could also have a direct effect on individual people’s own health.

Timekeeper, the software necessary to administer time banks which was originally devised by Edgar Cahn, is available at low cost from Time Banks UK, who also provide advice for any would-be ‘time broker’ prepared to coordinate a new scheme. Is all this infrastructure really necessary, however, to achieve the sort of good neighbourliness which surely used to be taken for granted? According to Joy Rogers, time banks are one response to recent changes in society. "Twenty or thirty years ago, people didn’t move around so much and people often lived in the same towns as their parents and grandparents. Nowadays, people move more. Time broking is really a mechanism for creating a stronger sense of community, helping people who feel isolated," she says.

Time banks have close parallels with the LETS (Local exchange trading systems) idea, which has seen semi-formalised barter schemes trading ‘favours’ established in many parts of the country. Unlike LETS schemes, however, time banks provide a strong brokerage role in arranging transactions between members. By focusing on the time spent undertaking a service, time banks also value all members’ labour as worth the same, something which, as Joy Rogers points out, is not necessarily the case with all LETS schemes.

The emerging time banks movement may benefit indirectly from the recent high-profile BBC endorsement of Time Banks, a separate initiative originally launched by Comic Relief. Despite the similarity of names, TimeBank is more conventional in its aims, primarily concerned to encourage more people into undertaking voluntary work. Would-be volunteers register their details and interests by phone or (in the majority of cases) through the website, and are then put in touch with appropriate charities and community organisations, normally via the national network of Volunteer Bureaux or Councils for Voluntary Service. TimeBank also links to the recently developed National Volunteering Database,

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