Adding spice to regeneration and social renewal

Ben Dineen explains how a timebanking initiative is transforming some of Wales’s most deprived communities

As well as developing and managing timebanks, Ben Dineen has managed community and sustainable development projects in the UK and abroad. He is currently seconded to the Welsh Government's Climate Change team tasked with using timebanking as a tool to engage the many as agents of change in the transition to a low carbon future. For further information contact him on ben@justaddspice.org

In Blaengarw, seamstresses and craft groups gather at the working men’s hall, creating costumes for the village carnival. This tradition has only been revived recently and is widely seen as a symbol of a revitalised village. It is an outstanding example of a ‘timebanking’ initiative that is spreading across Wales and helping revive some of our most deprived communities.

More than twenty street ambassadors in Blaengarw also act as intermediaries between their ‘patch’, the local authority and other statutory and third sector agencies. By quickly reporting crime, littering, illegal tipping and dog fouling they enable public sector agencies to target resources more effectively to bring about solutions. Anti-social behaviour rates have dropped year-on-year in Blaengarw while, at the same time, the numbers of individuals actively contributing their time to their community has risen from 25 to over 700, out of a total population of 2000.

In Cardiff, long term residents of a United Welsh Housing hostel for vulnerable adults in Cardiff help to run a fruit and veg co-op, and deliver activities and projects within the hostel. Residents also mentor new arrivals by providing support, orientation and help in integrating themselves into hostel life. Such participation helps residents advance towards some of the independent living targets that are agreed as a key aspect of their residency. It takes the pressure off frontline staff, and creates a culture of joint responsibility within the hostel. Residents are no longer defined by their needs but by what they can do to contribute too. This helps to break an assumption and culture of dependency that often defines modern public services.

The single factor that unifies these projects is the use of agency time credits. The driving force behind this renewal is Spice, a young, vibrant social enterprise, whose interest is in developing credit systems that engage and empower the many rather than the few. Spice designs and develops agency time credits as a means of tackling social exclusion and building active, engaged communities.

Agency time credits have evolved from the original timebanking model devised by American civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn in the 1980s, in which time banks brokered exchanges of services between individual members in order to strengthen networks within communities. Agency time credits build on Cahn’s pioneering model by underpinning a time bank with a small amount of public money and credibility.

Agency time credits provide a new way for public services, third sector organisations and private businesses to value and grow civic action. They work on a simple hour-for-an-hour formula in which an individual gains an hour credit – a tangible, paper currency – by giving an hour of time to an activity that benefits local people, institutions or the environment. This credit can then be used to access an hour of events, training or activities. In Cardiff, for example, the model relies on a broad and diverse network of ‘time out’ partners, who are willing to underwrite and underpin individual participation.

Time bank rewards can often be provided at little or no additional cost to the public, through intelligent use of existing spare capacity. This allows companies and agencies to give back to the communities in which they work easily. Cardiff time bank members can use the credits they have gained to, among other things, attend a Cardiff Blues rugby match, swim or work out in any of Cardiff’s leisure centres, watch a performance at Chapter Arts Centre, The Gate or St. Davids Hall, or use the climbing wall at Boulders.

New ways of extending and challenging the methodology are emerging in Wales through the design and development of a number of innovative projects. Cardiff-based Time Schools aims to engage pupils, parents and the wider community both in the running and growth of the school, and in the bending of school resources and capacity for community benefit. Meanwhile, Time for Action, a project run in partnership with the Welsh Government’s Climate Change team focuses on the use of time credits to encourage behaviour change resulting in personal and collective carbon reduction. Time for Action is also developing a Wales-wide agency-to-agency network that will facilitate the exchange of skills, knowledge and competencies between groups, organisations and businesses with a shared commitment to sustainable development.

In the current climate of austerity and budgetary tightening there is no doubt that time credits are an idea whose time has come. The model has the potential to transform the way in which public services work with communities, while at the same time engaging those with no history of participation as agents of change.

Agency time credits have a multiplier effect that adds value to increasingly pressured budgets. By creating a two-way street that allows beneficiaries to input meaningfully into the services they receive, and by using these reinvigorated connections to intervene upstream before problems accumulate downstream they allow for effective, targeted interventions, while at the same time mobilising and including the many in that process.

It is the two-way conversation that agency time credits engender that has led Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation, to conclude, “Time credits are where self-interest and shared interest overlap, and they’re one of the best and most practical expressions of the Big Society.”

The potential for the use of agency time credits as a catalyst for social change, and their unique application forged in the crucible of the Welsh Valleys has led Public Service Management Wales to describe them as “a modern language for active citizenship” and “money for the civil society”. This not just another incentive scheme, it is a radical new language.

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