NEWS FEATURE: Time Banks - Time generates currency to build community links

Francois Le Goff

Time banks let communities exchange skills, and they are now starting to work alongside social services. Francois Le Goff reports.

Dennis Scott is 78 years old and lives in sheltered accommodation in Greenwich, south London. He does not have much to do during the day, and when he heard about time banks at the local community centre, he decided to participate. He can now ask for help from other time bank members who take him shopping and drive him out of town to pursue his hobby, watching airplanes. In return, he earns time credits by putting stamps on envelopes.

Time banks are a new face of the voluntary sector. They are essentially banking infrastructures that deal in hours instead of pounds, and whose purpose is to help bring communities together. Participants 'deposit' time in the bank by spending a few hours helping somebody or doing community work. They are then able to withdraw time from the bank when they need a service themselves.

So far, 55 time banks have been created across the UK, each one run independently by a 'time broker'. They are all part of the Time Bank UK network, an umbrella body which will soon receive charitable status from the Charity Commission. Launched in 2000 in partnership with the New Economics Foundation, the network built on the success of a charitable trust called Fair Shares that set up a pilot project in 1998 to explore the use of time as a currency to rebuild local communities.

Time banks claim their work makes public services more efficient. Local communities can offer skills and resources that professionals working in the public sector may not have.

For example, running drug prevention or quit-smoking programmes requires a great deal of time commitment, but little professional training. Time banks' activity reports show that local communities can achieve better results than public services in such programmes.

In London alone 800 people have signed up with time banks in the past year, generating a great deal of enthusiasm among local authorities and the Government, which seems keen to ride the wave of the scheme's success.

A time bank is easy to support since it does not need large amounts of money. Running costs are low, and few permanent staff are required.

The Deptford and New Cross Time Bank, for example, has received a £20,000 grant from the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This will enable the local branch to operate until April 2004.

But time banks may have difficulties in receiving long-term statutory funding because they have no clear development plan. A time bank is not a project with a fixed set of objectives and targets, but an ongoing process.

"At first, we had no specific agenda, we just listened to what people had to say about their living conditions and built on that," says Karina Krogh, a time bank co-ordinator in south London.

Local communities respond well to time banks because they feel disconnected from public services and do not believe that they are able to respond to their needs, according to Krogh.

"With time banking, everyone has the opportunity to be useful," she says.

"People do not sign up as 'unemployed' or 'mentally ill' but as someone with a skill to offer." Because they build mutual trust, she says, time banks attract those people that the public services cannot usually reach.

For example, young people with difficulties can receive advice and support through talking to a neighbour, before their problems take a more serious turn.

The Deptford and New Cross Time Bank plans to provide its participants with health awareness training in order to detect mental health problems within the local community. "In New Cross, 75 per cent of young people who commit suicide are not known by the NHS prior to their suicide," says Krogh.

The bank also runs an allotment scheme that enables people with mental health problems to share their knowledge of gardening with young women from the Pepys Housing Estate in Deptford. The value of time banks is that they let people build reciprocal links with the community, whereas the relationship they have with public services can be one-sided.

"In Lewisham, people with mental health problems told us that they did not want their time bank to be part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust," says Krogh. "They wanted the mental health services to move out of the hospital and into their community."

However, time banks operate very differently from the NHS. "People do not feel comfortable in endless consultation meetings," says Krogh. "They want to see the real effect these discussions will have on their lives. What I like about initiatives that emerge from the local community is that people decide today what they will do tomorrow. With the NHS, the decisions that are taken today are implemented next year."

These local projects have made the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust aware of the benefits of time banking. It has appointed a project officer for a period of two years to support the development of time banks and build links with the local community.

But because time banks can let people become less dependent on services like the NHS, health staff might be concerned that some of their responsibilities will be taken away from them.

"They are worried," says Eloise Mundy, vocational service manager at The Community Opportunity Services, which is a joint venture between the borough of Lewisham and The South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. "They realise that in 15 years time, their work might not be in such great demand anymore.

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