Can't pay? Try another way

YOUR MONEY Money... who needs it? Dido Sandler looks at Lets, the local trading schemes where you exchange skills, not cash
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The Independent Online
Barter is back. Specifically in the form of local exchange trading schemes (Lets), which enable individuals to obtain services without resorting to cash and to run up interest-free debts repayable in kind.

The idea is that you use someone else's service, whether aromatherapy, getting your house painted or having your accounts done, or even arranging an entire wedding, without any money changing hands. To repay those debts you offer your own chosen services to other members. Services have a Lets price and are netted off centrally, so the schemes work something like alternative currencies.

Lets started six years ago with a group of 100 people; now they have nearly 40,000 members. Liz Shephard, national co-ordinator of Letslink, the central organising body for Lets, hopes the number of participants will reach 100,000 by the end of 1998. The first business Lets is due to be set up next year in Hounslow in west London.

Many Lets have social and welfare roles - extending people's purchasing power and allowing them access to additional services through barter which they would never otherwise be able to afford.

One area of particular growth is health, with around 20 mental health Lets being established around the country.

Harry Turner is an artist. Four years ago he suffered a serious mental breakdown after his marriage failed. On his birthday that year he received no cards from his ex-wife or his daughter, hit a low and was contemplating suicide. No NHS counselling was to be had for the next four days. He was at the end of his two-week benefit cycle and had no money to pay for therapy or treatment. Mr Turner's landlady, a member of a local West Wilts Lets group, arranged for Mr Turner to see an acupuncturist that day. The treatment took him off the critical list but didn't cost Mr Turner a penny. Instead he ran up a Lets debt to the localLets community.

Mr Turner has since set up his own scheme - Beckford Community Lets, which is affiliated to the West Wilts scheme - to provide alternative therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy and massage, which the local mental health trust could not or would not offer. Since the beginning of the year the Beckford group has provided health services worth the equivalent of more than pounds 60,000. Beckford draws on alternative therapists from West Wilts, while to pay their debts Beckford members offer such services as gardening, catering for dinner parties or taking people's dogs for a walk.

Mr Turner points to a number of benefits of the scheme. Users "buy" alternative therapy treatments that the NHS cannot provide. They can also get company and support from other sufferers at all hours of the day and night - they build up a network of new friends and contacts and, by providing their own services, regain confidence by integrating themselves back into a working environment that is relaxed and non-threatening.

Lets started out in Britain as something of a white, middle-class, green- oriented movement. But schemes are now in operation in big city estates and multi-racial environments in Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle. David Williams, Lets and non-cash trading consultant for the London Borough of Hounslow, says he attracted a broad cross-section of local people into the borough's scheme by recruiting members at a stall in the market. Hounslow was the first borough to sponsor a Lets scheme, as part of its anti-poverty policy. Now 60 per cent of local councils across the country are considering following suit or have already done so.

Members of the Hounslow scheme - where the local Lets currency is called Cranes - can "buy" extra coaching to help children through GCSEs and A- levels. Under a cash system only middle-class parents could afford the tuition.

Lets systems have different names throughout the country and the currencies are virtually always local and not readily interchangeable. Cranes are named after the River Crane in Hounslow (originally, the suggested name was Turpin after Dick Turpin who held up travellers on Hounslow Heath, but it was felt this would be too negative). Brighton uses Brights, Readies are in circulation in Reading and Bristol sticks to Ideals.

When a Lets member uses a service or product, he or she writes a cheque in the local currency unit, which is then debited against his or her account held on a central register. A member's services are listed in a directory for other members to call upon. Selling your services in turn attracts credits to cancel out your "debt", which is interest-free. People do not require credits to be able to "buy" services.

Depending on the scheme, individual Lets members typically set their own prices or prices are based on time. The issue of pricing is the subject of some debate.

The Brighton Brights scheme recently switched to a system where prices were related to cash values, so that goods as well as services could be traded. Otherwise it was felt that under the old time-based system there would be problems: how many man-hours would an organic cabbage be worth, for example.

Ruth Philips, a cellist belonging to the Brighton Brights scheme, says looking after children creatively should have a high value in terms of Brights because of the skill and energy it demands. Similarly, as someone who has studied her instrument since she was four years old, something of that effort should be reflected in Brights, she believes. Hounslow's Mr Turner, on the other hand, believes most services should be priced at a standard rate.

Lets scheme operators say it is very rare for someone to default and leave the system without settling what they owe. If they fall behind they may be encouraged to make up what they owe, although the debts are not legally enforceable.

Ms Shephard at Letslink says the increasing insecurity of the labour market should fuel the growth of Lets schemes. Lets protect members from the vicissitudes of the broader economy, since demand is untramelled by the availability of hard cash. British Lets groups are also considering setting up a Lets similar to the More scheme in the US state of Missouri, which is extending the community-based exchange system to care for the aged and infirm. Recently retired people work for long-retired individuals and clock up many hours of service. In turn, when the recently retired themselves get old and frail, they get repayment for the man-hours they put in before.

For more information write to Letslink UK, 61 Woodcock Road, Warminster, Wilts BA12 9DH, enclosing six first-class stamps.