Lets make money
An aromatherapy session could set you back a few vers in St Albans, while in Hounslow there is a solicitor who gives legal advice in exchange for cranes, the local currency named after the river flowing through this west London borough.
Other alternative currencies used on local exchange trading schemes (Lets) include readies in Reading, acorns in Totnes and deans and vicars in the Forest of Dean. In Hamilton, thistles are challenging the pound's hold on the economy, while in Cleveland doofers will do for people trading through the area's Lets.
Around 40,000 people, many of them teachers, now belong to these schemes, which allow members to exchange goods and services without any money changing hands. So teachers offering, say, maths or language tuition to those who might otherwise not be able afford it, could swap the readies or doofers they have earned for help with their shopping or gardening.
"We exchange things that people often would not exchange for cash because cash is in short supply,'' says Steve Heigham, a part-time special needs teacher and member of Bishopston Lets in Bristol.
He originally joined so he could have his loft wallpapered. Five years on, the walls of the loft remain bare but Mr Heigham has done thousands of Lets' worth of trade. In exchange for babysitting, decorating and other services, he has given tuition to a woman with dyslexia, fixed cars and washing machines and sold greeting cards featuring the work of local artists.
People joining a Lets usually receive a cheque book to record the credits and debits they run up in the local currency. They also receive statements showing how much they have spent and earned, but they are not charged interest if they run up an "overdraft''.
"We encourage people to get into debt because that motivates them to find work,'' says Mr Heigham. "If you've got a room that needs decorating and someone comes in to do it, you are then in debt and that pushes you into going out and doing things other people want."
Mr Heigham, like many others who belong to Lets groups, was attracted by the opportunity to make social contacts and become involved in his local community. But membership also offers practical advantages both to people on low incomes and to the more affluent, according to Liz Shepherd of Letslink, a body supporting the 400 or so Lets groups in the UK.
"If you haven't got time you are likely to have resources that other people might want to borrow,'' she says. "So you can earn by lending out equipment or hiring out a room and gain things that are not available through the market-place - neighbourly-type services like dog-walking, shopping and house-minding.'' On many Lets the unit of exchange is worth roughly a pound, so people who already sell their skills for cash can convert their usual fees into the local currency. Others need to negotiate a price with their "customers''.
The London Borough of Hounslow, the first local authority to sponsor a Lets, asks members not to accept less than the standard rate of six cranes an hour. But in practice it is often cheaper to buy things through Lets than through the cash economy.
Julia Cumbo, a member of the St Albans Lets group, earns Pounds 15-Pounds 17 an hour teaching ceramics at a local college of further and adult education. But when she runs ceramics workshops in her own home she usually charges 25 vers for a four-hour session.
Ms Cumbo has had her house painted and her gardening done by members of her group, whose currency is named after Verulanium, the Roman town on the site of St Albans. She recently had a desk French-polished for 40 vers, after receiving a quote for Pounds 160 from someone outside the scheme.
With the Inland Revenue keeping an eye on Lets earnings, perhaps it is just as well that they tend to be low. Many of the services people offer through Lets count as social favours and are not taxable, explains David Williams, a consultant co-ordinating the Lets scheme in Hounslow. But he points out that people who earn their living doing something very similar to what they do through a Lets scheme could be liable for tax.
"If you manage to spend as much as you earn, there's no profit to declare so you don't get taxed,'' he says. "But if you've only earned and not spent, then that's profit and you'd be paying tax at the going rate." Mr Williams is now setting up a Lets for local businesses, though members of the existing Hounslow scheme already include voluntary organisations, churches and schools.
Schools taking part in Lets can make their budgets go further by hiring out rooms, reprographic equipment and other resources in exchange for services in kind.
But Longdean School, a large comprehensive in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, sees Lets primarily as a way of becoming more closely involved with its local community. Last term the school invited a professional painter and decorator to supervise pupils who were painting a classroom. In return Longdean has given the Hemel Hempstead Lets group the use of a room for meetings.
Since anybody can join a Lets, there are potential security problems for schools. But Andy Smith, one of the founders of the Hemel Hempstead group, thinks these problems can be overcome.
"One of the things we are looking to do - and this is partly a way of getting around the problem of strangers coming into the school - is to recruit parents so that anybody who comes in to do some painting or gardening is known. "
For more information, write to Letslink UK, 61 Woodcock Road, Warminster, Wilts BA12 9DH, enclosing six second-class stamps.