Sorry mate, no cash

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Our latest guest blogger Richard Derecki reflects on what an increasingly ‘cashless society’ means for those who rely on our generosity, and in-turn, what that means for our communities and how we interact. 

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Bundling my way down the Tube station stairs to squeeze myself onto an east bound District line train, I suddenly heard the familiar “let me take you by the hand” part of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”, that homage to the homeless and destitute of our cities. Buskers don’t normally sit themselves at the bottom of the stairs that lead on to the platform as there is hardly any space to set up, so it was a bit of surprise to see him there. But boy what a voice; whiskey cracked and heartfelt, it brought back memories of hitchhiking around Europe and relying on the generosity of strangers to make ends meet. I felt a welling up, a blend of melancholy and romanticism – an unusual feeling on a routine commute to work. I had to give the guy something. I searched my pockets in vain – trousers, jacket, coat, nothing. Desperate now, I dug deep into my bag finding, with relief, two pound coins in a back pocket. I put the money on to the coat he was sitting on and thanked him for his song.

I saw others too, touched by the song and looking for change – but hey who carries cash these days? I know I don’t. My contactless card covers me for everything I need on a standard day – bus fare, tube fare, lunch at work, something forgotten from the shops on the way home. I used to take out a week allowance to cover me for lunches and other bits and pieces, but I don’t bother any more. And so I don’t have any cash on me. I can’t give to the charity buckets collectors at the Station; I don’t have spare change for the buskers or the pan handlers; I don’t have money for a Big Issue. The other day a guy called at the door selling household accessories as part of his community service. I don’t normally buy from the front door, but something in his story made me want to buy a duster off him to wish him well. But, sorry mate, no cash. The only cash in the house was my youngest’ s birthday money and I felt a bit mean taking that off him.

The switch to a cashless society started slowly enough. I remember being at a presentation of Mondex in the early 1990s. It was the first UK smart card electronic system devised by Nat West and trialled in Swindon. It involved installing hundreds of terminals in shops and giving the cards free to residents. It all seemed very futuristic, but plausible and I guess proved a testing ground for the smart card’s eventual sweep across the country some 25 years later. But at the time no-one could work out who would pay for the all the terminals that were needed and whether people would actually trust their “electronic wallet” – how would you know how much money you had in your wallet when you could not count the notes and coins? So, in Swindon, at least and at that time it flopped.

A big part of the spur to a cashless society has been the rising cost of cash handling for the retailers and the mildly irritating chore of queuing at the ATM cash point for your daily or weekly allowance. Probably the most significant step in the move to a cashless society that I was aware of was the announcement by Transport for London (TfL) in 2014 that London buses would stop taking cash. It no longer made sense for the bus drivers to take cash – it was too fiddly, slowed passengers boarding, made them a robbery target and meant an expensive infrastructure of counting, auditing and trips to the bank.  TfL had been working towards this move by first introducing pre-paid bundles of tickets you could use on any bus and then by introducing the Oyster pre-payment card; now you can use your contactless card or phone or watch.

Since then an alliance of banks and retailers have combined to “nudge” us even further towards a cashless, contact card driven payment system. And while the cost benefit analysis clearly works in the favour of the banks and large organisations who don’t want to handle cash, a few commentators have begun to assess the unintended consequences of taking “squids”, “nuggs” and “spanners” out of our pockets.  In a recent piece for the Guardian, Anna Timms described how as the last bank branch closed in Lyme Regis residents and tourists had either to queue at the Post Office or try and track down the only ATM in the town and hope that it hadn’t already run out of bank notes. As cash is withdrawn from the high-street then small businesses are forced to take debit or credit cards whether they like it or not. As Anna points out they must bare the cost that is, on average, three times as much as if taking cash, because they have to pay a service charge to the bank that processes the payment.

For many of us the move to a cashless society seems to go with the grain of our desire for a frictionless path through our daily routine. Remember the Barclaycard advert of the man swooshing down a very large water slide interacting with the commercial world but without stopping? Isn’t that how we want life to be? Some shops now just don’t take cash. I went to buy lunch from swish sandwich bar in London Bridge with just a tenner in my back pocket but they wouldn’t take it – the woman who was handling the till just tapped a sign by the payment machine “Card only”. Nothing I could do – my chilli chicken wrap went back.

Across the pond, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres is so concerned about how a cashless market place sends “an exclusionary message that the impoverished, the homeless, the underbanked, the undocumented need not apply,” that he has introduced a bill to the Council that would prevent establishments only taking credit and debit cards. As he said in an interview “I think we need to ask ourselves as a city, is that the kind of de facto discrimination we’re okay with sanctioning in the marketplace?”  Torres argues that establishments that don’t accept cash could be discriminating against communities that have difficulty accessing credit cards and should be fined if they continue to refuse to take cash.

Closer to home I ask Sandy, my local Big Issue seller, what he thinks of the move to a cashless society and his views are more nuanced than a simple cash good, cashless bad dichotomy. He has seen sales drop off over the past few years but wasn’t sure whether that was because while his regulars still found the money for the magazine there were fewer impulse buys because people didn’t have any coins to the ready or whether it was because he’d changed his selling position. He actually had a card reader which he took sales on – not many, three or four a week. I thought it surprising when he said he would be happy see all his sales move from cash to card, as it meant less hassle and fewer trips to the bank, even though there was a handling fee to pay for each transaction. He was, however, annoyed that while the Big Issue buyer would see money leave their account as soon as they had tapped, Sandy wouldn’t see the money go into his account for around a week and, given that he had to buy stock every Monday morning he couldn’t afford the delay.

I’ve since noticed card readers appear in the hands or even round the necks of charity bucket collectors, and savvy buskers have card readers with big signs saying “please tap here to give £1”. So, I can see how with the backing of an organisation, such as a charity, or if you have the know-how and the financial resilience to be able to wait for the money to come into your account, it is possible to adjust to the changing ways we interact with each other and make our transactions. But, for those who truly do rely on the spontaneous kindness of strangers to make their way, times may just be getting a bit harder.

Richard also writes on all things London and his short stories have been performed by the White Rabbit collective. 

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