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Mole Valley LETS' dork - beating the credit crunch with currency

PUBLISHED: 13:02 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 05:27 10 March 2015

Mole Valley LETS credit book

Mole Valley LETS credit book

As the credit crunch tightens its grip on the British economy, over in the Mole Valley there's one group of residents who don't really need to worry - because they've adopted their own currency. DEBBIE WARD went to meet them

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2008

***

Many of us may bemoan the fact that we work for dorks, but there's a group of people in the Mole Valley who are more than happy to do so. They've willingly babysat, fixed up houses and even taken people to the airport for dorks. Because to those in the know, a dork is not just a gormless person, it's also a unit of alternative currency.

The dork users (the currency name is a shortening of Dorking) are members of Mole Valley's Local Exchange Trading Scheme (LETS). Though they are the only people in the county earning and spending dorks, there are LETS schemes throughout Surrey trading in beaks, croys, wells and watts.

LETS members, of which there are over 30,000 in the UK alone, offer low value goods and services to others in the group in exchange for credits in their alternative currency. The credits can then be spent on any other members' goods and services.

Each group has a directory showing what its members are willing to sell. The content of Mole Valley's ranges from computer support, welding and van hire to Russian classes and soul-based polarity therapy.

The group's co-coordinator, George McNamara, who once lived in the Findhorn spiritual community and eco village in Scotland, has one of the most varied range of offerings.

"I've learnt a lot over the years, and thought I'd show willing by offering some more unusual things, too," he says. "I think LETS is generally a bit alternative and quite green but it's mostly sociable in our case."

A credit to themselves
For dorks, George will provide vegetarian B&B, Bach remedies, German translation and proofreading. He'll coach you in neuro-linguistic programming or paint techniques, tell you your fortune, darn your clothes or undertake heavy gardening - after which, unsurprisingly, he seeks to spend his dorks on massages.

George says lifts to the airport are probably the most popular service bought for dorks, but the group's monthly trading meetings, where goods are exchanged, are always well attended.

"Other LETS schemes have different focuses - child care and toy exchanges, healthcare and therapy exchanges, older people's meal and help exchanges or 'jumble sale' trading," he says. "But our trading mornings have worked out as a gardeners' and cooks' exchange over time, though we'd love to expand to include other things, too."

Mole Valley LETS' monthly meet-ups are particularly popular among people with allotments who can swap their surplus produce with others. The morning I visited, vegetables, fruit bushes, homemade jam, pot plants and a few household items were arranged on a table in a member's Dorking home. Over tea, credits were exchanged in the form of yellow dork cheques, which feature a cockerel design.

"I've just taken some leeks, because they are one of the things I don't grow so well," explained Hugh Baker, who had brought along fruit to trade. He'd already sold some blackcurrant bushes for dorks earlier in the week. As well as selling allotment produce, Hugh rents out a shredder and, through the group Compost Works, offers free guidance to people wanting to start composting.

He admits he's used stranger currency than dorks on occasion. "I wanted to make some nice boards for when we go to shows," he says. "Anyway, someone in LETS had some sticky-back Velcro off-cuts because he does exhibition stands, so I gave him a bag of worms. He got a good compost and I got good exhibition boards."

Some people join LETS for fun or to save money but it also attracts those with certain ideals.

Robert Edmondson, a retired scientist who raises dorks by selling herbs from his garden and hosting trading meetings, says: "I'm a conservationist and a bit of an idealist. I know money is necessary and I know capitalism is necessary but if you can manage without it to some extent, I think it's good for sociability. It encourages cooperation and a sense of being involved in society."

For Margaret Harris, a retired teacher, who grows much of her own food, LETS is also the extension of a green lifestyle.

"I sell mainly vegetables and buy anything I need but I don't need an awful lot because to some extent I'm self-sufficient," she says. "I run my own allotment, which is organic, and I'm interested in alternative health. I think there's a tendency for people to join who are involved in the 'alternative' world."

Pennies from heaven
Mother-of-five Frith Stratford-Johns, who has been a LETS member for about 15 years, agrees: "It's just the kind of lifestyle I had - a bit of a hippy, vegetarian and into permaculture and I used to be in the squatting scene when I was young."

Frith offers one of the more unusual services in Mole Valley's LETS directory - belly dancing lessons.

"I'd like to say I learned to belly dance somewhere exotic but it was at adult education classes," she laughs. "It's good for keeping you fit and it's a womanly thing to do. I'm not so much the sequinned bra type but people dress up or down as they like."

As well as her dancing lessons, Frith also does spring cleaning for dorks and has spent her earnings on shiatsu massages.

She sometimes performs belly dancing at festivals, which she says is as near as she'll get to following in the footsteps of her theatrical father, Alan Stratford-Johns, who played Charlie Barlow in Z Cars. "Because I grew up so much in the public eye, I shied away from the stage but now I've found the level I like," she says.

Another of the more curious offerings in Mole Valley LETS comes from Reverend Geoffrey Brookes, who will accept dork payment for funerals.

"I wouldn't want to stop someone using their parish church," he says, "but if people wanted something outside the normal run on things, I'd be interested in doing a woodland service, for instance."

Though the UK LETS membership has declined in recent years, he believes the recent financial downturn may well lead to a boost in membership, as happened before during the recession of the early Nineties.

Spreading in Surrey
For Surrey people seeking to save money on practical goods and services, there's certainly plenty of scope. In Kingston, LETS members can get job search advice from a recruitment consultant, help with survey design from a psychologist and proofreading from a sub-editor while over in Sutton there's a scaffolding tower and cement mixer for hire, French or Italian lessons on offer and someone willing to pay for help with podcasting.

Back in the Mole Valley, the more practical offerings include plastering, welding, accounting and electrical services... which perhaps begs the question - how many dorks does it take to change a lightbulb?

***

A note on tax:
The kind of low level transactions that occur through LETS do not generally attract tax. However, if you're a professional, such as a plumber, thinking of offering regular work through the scheme, it's best to declare this for tax and ask members to pay the bulk of your fee in real money.

What do you know?
Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) began in Canada in the 1970s. LETS started in the UK in the 1980s and grew in popularity during the recession of the early Nineties. There are now believed to be more than 30,000 people involved in LETS schemes in the UK with an average of 100 members per scheme. Different LETS groups do not generally exchange with one another but an internet-based scheme that would allow this is under consideration.

Further information on Surrey LETS schemes:


 

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