What will you swap me for this?

Hard times have sparked a return to barter economics as people trade their skills. Chiara Cavaglieri reports
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It may be difficult to look on the bright side during a recession. But one outcome of difficult economic times is that people are inspired to use their imaginations when it comes to saving money. One of the most popular thrift movements in recent times is skill-swapping, in which people trade their talents and services with each other instead of cash.

Local Exchange Trading Schemes (Lets) have been set up all over Britain for this purpose. At the hub of these is the organisation Letslink UK, which began in 1991 and supports and represents the schemes. Other ways to get involved include checking the skill-swapping section on Gumtree and sites such as www.oddjobswap.co.uk, which is currently recruiting individuals to register for access to the online database and match up other oddjobbers looking to swap skills. Even the supermarkets are catching on to the skill-swapping ideal. Asda holds a "local week" once a year at select stores and last year introduced "barter boards" as part of the campaign. These boards allow customers to advertise their skills and put up requests for the skills of others.

The theory of skill-swapping is to bring communities together through localised groups. There really is no limit to the skills that could be on offer. It's by no means for experts alone with a vast array of services listed, from repairing clothes to growing organic fruit and vegetables. "It's about getting back to basics," says Jenny Hunt, co-ordinator for the Harrow Lets, which began in 1992 with just three people and now has 60 members. "You exchange goods and services for your own currency and there is no profit involved at all."

So how do these schemes work in practice? Members can join an established group by searching on the LetsLink website (www. letslinkuk.net) for their nearest scheme. Each scheme will have its own joining procedure but there is nothing to stop people from becoming members of several , perhaps one for their home town, another for their place of work and so on.

Instead of money, each scheme creates its own "currency", with which members earn by doing work and spend on the services of others. For example, the Kingston upon Thames scheme, nattily named Kutlets, is a thriving group which uses a currency called "beaks". Local organisations such as schools and churches can join as well as individuals. A series of "offers" and "wants" lists are displayed on the scheme's websites and members can hold trading events or get in touch with each other to trade. Credits then move from one account to another as the skills are swapped. With Kutlets, the directory of goods and skills on offer is distributed to members every three months or can be accessed online, where it is updated constantly.

One of the potential problems with a Lets scheme is that there is scope for abuse, with members taking advantage of skills on offer but not providing their own services and running a negative account. By and large, however, this is a rarity and, if anything, there are many more people willing to offer their skills without making use of those skills on offer. Most groups will also take a joining fee and annual subscription from members, as a way for members to show their loyalty and commitment to that group. "It's a flexible system and each group is totally autonomous. There is no profit involved and if you're in credit or debit, it doesn't really matter," says Ms Hunt.

How these skills are valued is another important question and schemes use one of two systems, or a combination of the two. With some, the local currencies are notionally equivalent to one pound sterling, and with others, they equate to one hour of a person's time. Ultimately though, it is up to those trading to set and agree a price.

A Hampton-based local care charity, the Greenwood Centre, ran a Lets for two years with its currency "tags". Members paid a one-off fee of £2.50 and advertised their skills in a directory which was updated every month. Once set up, the charity took a step back from the scheme and allowed members to contact each other.

"We took it on because it fits in with the ethos of our charity and although it ran out of steam, we were pleased with its success," says Paul White, letting manager for the Greenwood Centre. The bulk of the problems the charity faced when organising the scheme were administrative rather than a lack of interest. "It took an awful lot of time. An online system would have made life a lot easier," says Mr White.

Letslink UK has made efforts to encourage schemes to put web-based systems in place. A number of software programmes have been designed specifically to run Lets and help members to run their groups more efficiently. Members can create and edit their offers and wants listings and view the exchange history of other members as well as take a look at the feedback from other members. This not only makes life a lot easier for members, but also substantially reduces costs and means that the network has the ability to reach out further and include members from a wider community.

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