The rebel bank, printing its own notes and buying back people’s debts

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HCSB in Walthamstow is selling printed bank notes to raise money to buy local debt

First there were the banks. Sending credit cards through the post, offering easy loans. They overstretched, teetered. Then came the billion-dollar bailouts, recession, austerity, poverty and payday loans.

Then, slowly, came the movement: a piecemeal, sporadic effort to buy back the debt of ordinary people.

Now in north-east London, an enterprise that is part art installation, part stunt and part charitable endeavour, has brought all the threads together: a bank that prints its own money, sells it for real tender and uses the proceeds to buy back the debt.

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Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn have taken over an old Co-op Bank on a high street in Walthamstow and are printing money featuring the faces of people behind four local services a primary school, a foodbank, a youth project and a soup kitchen.

As well as raising money for those projects, Hoe Street Central Bank aims to raise enough money to buy out 1m of debt owned by people within the E17 postcode, in a London borough ranked 35th most deprived in the country.

We see it as a community heist taking on the economic discourse, says Powell.

Hilary
Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn, who created the bank. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

One of the delightful ironies of the undertaking is that the bank could only have to raise as little as 20,000 to buy out 1m of local debt, because bad loans are often written down to a fraction of their face value in the secondary market.

The system forces people into debt for basic needs, says Powell. We are the forerunners of what we hope will be a bigger movement for debt abolition.

As the bank did its unusual trade this week, schoolchildren were invited in to watch a batch of 5, 10 and 20 notes, all designed by artists, roll off the presses. After all, its not every day that you see your headteachers face on a fiver.

Bank notes featuring Tracy Griffiths were pegged onto string across the space to dry. The husband and wife creative partnership were influenced by the Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee initiatives in the US, which started to buy debt and abolish it for ethical reasons.

Printed
The names and images of local people appear on these bank notes instead of the queen. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

In 2014, Strike Debt bought $3.8m worth of students loans, and spawned other ad hoc initiatives: in 2016 TV host John Oliver bought and wrote off $15m of medical debt held by 9,000 people. The Rolling Jubilee campaign has raised over $700,000 enough to buy back over $30m debt.

One of the artists who is working as a money printer at the Walthamstow bank (paid at the London living wage) on the project was drawn to it because hes local and had personal experience of debt. My parents lost their home during the recession, says Alistair Gentry. Anyone can get into debt. It doesnt matter how rich you are to start with… It feels really good to roll up your sleeves and literally get inky, but also metaphorically, to do something about it. Not just sit around and having a moan.

The bank is open until Sunday 25 March. Artists will print money in the day and there will be a series of talks in the evenings.

Mother
Emma Zipfel with her son Bowyn, three, who popped in to visit the bank. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Edelstyn and Powell are making a film about the project, debt and the economic system called Bank Job. Imagine if we could get it on every economics course at every university or every sixth form economics, says Powell. Then the reach of this goes beyond this high street to all over the country.

The project has had the offshoot benefit of helping to strengthen community bonds as most of the people involved are local. We live just down the road and thats a real attraction to it, says Edelstyn. I used to feel like I didnt have time to know anyone in the community. Were all so stressed just trying to make ends meet. The idea of political engagement with groups in your community seemed like a nice idea but slightly scary and unachievable.

But when I started to research this and get in touch with local projects, I found that everyone has a good sense of humour and theyre all normal human beings. We created this conversation across the borough, and connected different people together. Thats basically what this is. Its just a way of talking.

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the worlds most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at theupside@theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/23/hoe-street-central-bank-walthamstow-london-debt

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