From counterculture to CounterCoin - Newcastle under Lyme has a new model for how to do business

The British high street has seen better days. 28,000 retail shops in British towns have closed in the last decade. Footfall is at an all time low. That’s not just damaging to local economies, in many areas high streets are centres for community and public life, not to mention public services.

But there’s plenty of reasons to be hopeful when you step inside Cultural Squatters’ newly opened cafe in York Place, a shopping centre in Newcastle under Lyme.

“It’s a place for people”, says co-founder Narina at the packed official opening, “Cultural Squatters is a space, whether it’s a physical space or a headspace. It’s somewhere people can come together and unite under something that they want to share together.”

Founders Narina and Fee, opened earlier this month and already have created an inclusive environment and safe space for the community. It’s a new way of doing business on the high street, grounded in community, equality and inclusivity.

They aim to make real personal connections with people. And it’s working, they’ve only been open for one month and already they’ve had customers returning every day. Midway through our interview one returning customer passing by grabs Narina’s attention to say, “So pleased to meet you the other day. There are people that care and there is a place for me”.

It’s not just customers who are benefitting. People with additional and complex needs volunteer and work in the space. “It’s about opportunity for everyone.”, claims Narina, “It’s about evening the playing field. It’s about people who have had opportunities working alongside others who haven’t had opportunity.”  

The ethos behind everything they want to do is summed up by #BeKind, a social media campaign celebrating kindness. “I’m an old, angry hippy”, says Narina, “Kindness is the most underrated quality”.

The currency of community

If you don’t think encouraging inclusivity, equality and just plain kindness can change a community then there’s also some innovative currency economics at work too.

Cultural Squatters’ volunteers are part of a scheme called CounterCoin. The brainchild of Mike Riddell, CounterCoin is a new way of incentivising and recognising volunteering.

“The token stores that value and enables it to be transferred to a retailer so that contribution, that work, is validated and verifiable.”, explains Mike, “It’s a thank you and a discount.”

Simply put if you give your time in Cultural Squatters, you receive CounterCoins. These can be exchanged for services or products at local businesses. They’re yet to start pushing it in Newcastle under Lyme, but already they’ve got a local milkshake parlour, a local bowling alley, Cultural Squatters itself and Laser Quest on board.

Each coin represents a pound’s worth of discount and volunteers are given five coins for an hour their time. It wouldn’t replace a wage, but it goes some way to recognising the effort and commitment people are putting into their community.

CounterCoin and the organisations they’re helping like Cultural Squatters have the potential to invigorate volunteering in the local area, stimulate the local economy, help build a community of activism and, to use Narina’s words, “make the world a little bit kinder”.

How we helped

CounterCoin and Cultural Squatters is part of UnLtd’s resilient communities work supporting local people to be the difference in their communities and make a positive change.

As part of our resilient communities work we have our award managers working to build partnerships, support and connect local people with enterprising ideas to transform the places they live. In North Staffordshire, Alex, one of our award managers, has been connecting people and helping to stimulate collaboration.

“There is a growing group of social entrepreneurs in North Staffordshire who aren’t prepared to wait for others to develop solutions to the local issues they have identified and have, instead collaborated with each other to bring about change.”, says Alex.

In fact, it was Alex who introduced Narina to Mike, who as well as running CounterCoin manages York Space shopping centre. Mike secured premises for Cultural Squatters in York Space and has helped other social entrepreneurs like Human Nature Escapes to use the empty office space above as headquarters.

 

 

Mike claims to be a salesman at heart, but its community and connections that seem to make him tick. Our interview begins with four people sat around a table, but ends with an open forum discussion with 15 people sharing ideas.

CounterCoin is as much about supporting retailers to be efficient as it about valuing volunteers. “The volunteer feel they’re getting something of value and the vendor feels valued because he’s getting more custom”, says Mike.

According to Mike it’s worth it for the local businesses too. Take a recent example, the local bowling alley has agreed to a discount for people with CounterCoins. The bowling alley isn’t full, but is still paying staff and electricity costs. The CounterCoins allow that inefficient waste to be turned into cash for the vendor.

“It’s a true value exchange”, says Mike, “in accountancy terms it’s called zero marginal cost of sale.”

What next?

CounterCoin has plans to expand and create a B2B barter network to allow local businesses to trade services. “Think about the physiotherapists and the solicitors, copywriters, accountants, who have some downtime”, says Mike, “retailers who have accepted the coin could use it to part pay for those services so that only the balance is paid in cash”.

They’re already working with a designer and ceramicist to re-design the current, fluorescent, plastic coins into something that fits with North Staffordshire’s heritage of world famous ceramics.  

“What we’re hoping is that we can make it pretty enough and sell them as tourist items”.

For Cultural Squatters it’s about becoming a hub for people doing good things in the community. Whether that’s hosting community groups to holding their own events or simply making sure that there’s an affordable space for people to meet.

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