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Conference Report

by Mary]

Dear Friends
I’m not sure if anyone wrote a report of the LETS and Timebanks Conference at the Local Economic and Policy Unit (LEPU) of South Bank University, so here is mine -from memory - please forgive any details omitted. It seemed to me a useful, if somewhat tense gathering, it has to be said mostly of professionals, working either directly in schemes, or in support roles within Local Authorities, the DSS etc and of course university Researchers. Useful because at least we met a few LETS workers including some from Scotland and Wales, and were able to understand a little more of where Timebanks are coming from. Letslink UKmanaged to get two places for Letslink because we helped to publicise the conference, otherwise most LETS workers were confined cost-wise to the second day, so it was not "our" conference, but one we were “allowed to half attend”. We are looking forward to running our own conference, and the organiser at LEPU, Peter North, has pledged his support in a personal capacity to enable this to happen. Why tense? Well, there have been recent undercurrents of "mutual uncertainty" between LETSers and Timebankers, reflected in a certain awkwardness in the opening session, in which

David Boyle described Timebanks as taking care of communities, and LETS as taking care of local economies, a dichotomy which caused many of those present to wince. The Fairshares presentation describing the original network of schemes in Gloucestershire portrayed them as well-run “mutual” volunteer agencies. The later Timebanks have been set up under the auspices of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) working in partnership with Fairshares, and all are funded, whereas most LETS schemes run as voluntary bodies, and if funding is involved, it has tended to be small eg for publicity, or for a support worker to help develop local LETS schemes.

Theresa Aldridge ably brought us up to date with the three-year Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESSRC) - funded project on LETS & Social Exclusion, which ran from 1997 to 2000, the results of which have recently been published in book format. Using initial data provided by LETSlink UK, organisers from some 330 LETS schemes all over the UK were interviewed at length in order to discover whether LETS enables people to enter the employment market, or at least become less “socially excluded”. The answer to this rather obscure question seemed to be YES, for some, but LETS did not have the resources to reach everybody who might benefit, in some cases simply due to geographical distance (in other words there was not a LETS scheme sufficiently nearby), or some of the people who really needed help felt unable to join a LETS scheme which looked like it was a support network for people unlike them; others feared it would cause them trouble over their benefits.

Richard Douthwaite delivered a challenging talk on the sustainability of LETS. He identified factors which tended to come into play over a period of time, such as people doing a lot of work, including organisers who pay themselves currency for tasks associated with running the scheme accumulating more than they were able to spend (ie extreme positive balances linked with growing system account deficit – the well-known black hole effect) and individuals who enthusiastically used the scheme to obtain services for themselves and failed to perform sufficient trades to balance their accounts (ie extreme negative balances), as well as organiser exhaustion – the “burn-out” effect. The questions which were left unanswered were whether organisers had heeded (or indeed received) detailed advice given out by LETSlink UK and by other organisers at conferences on these matters, ie whether the “UK model” of LETS had been operated correctly by these groups, or whether we as a network of organisers might be capable of finding ways of communicating with each other to experiment with and share refinements which would counter these tendencies and thus develop “good practice” in the running of LETS schemes.

Ruth Pearson continued with a film presentation of local economy activities in Argentina (whose economic crisis has subsequently hit the headlines) where due to extreme circumstances, new barter-clubs using vouchers instead of cheques and running weekly trading days exchanging everything from vegetable produce to second hand goods and services had suddenly mushroomed into enormous popularity – an example of the LETS model being adapted successfully to meet local needs.

John Mills reported on the LETS and BENEFITS negotiations at Parliamentary level, which had inexplicably broken down some time during 1999 only for us to hear the surprise announcement in June 2000 that Time Banks had received a complete Benefits Disregard. John’s assessment of the situation was that if we as a network could assemble a large body of evidence of the good results for the community which LETS had achieved locally on a case-by-case basis, we could surely convince the authorities that LETS is worth supporting and that its members should not be threatened with the possibility of loss of Benefits – he was willing to coordinate this but we have heard recently that he has moved on to run a local radio station in Liverpool!

Peter North led free-ranging discussion which covered many topics at random, including Sarah Burn’s glowing report of the initial progress of Timebanking under the auspices of the New Economics Foundation and my own frank report on LETSlink UK’s difficulties which had currently left us without funding and holding things together by a thread. LETS organisers, especially those contemplating setting up new schemes were left wondering, since LETS has always included the option of trading in equal time as well as with varying rates, if there really is a difference which matters apart from the possibility of gaining funding. Clearly we have a long way to go in renewing confidence in the LETS community around the concepts of mutuality and the integrity of local currency systems.

Conference: July 2001, Report January 2002 by Mary Fee, Honorary Secretary Letslink UK



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