London barge-dwellers bank on each other

Thu Oct 9, 2008 8:17pm EDT
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By Barbara Lewis

LONDON (Reuters) - "Finance," said the chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, "has simply moved too far from its moorings in the real economy." For Lucie Stephens, his choice of words in the latest edition of Newsweek magazine may be apt.

Within sight of the glass and steel skyscrapers where traders thrash through the maelstrom of financial crisis, she is one of a small group of people living on antique barges moored on the River Thames, who nurture a grounded life.

In a gentle way, the community in the London borough of Southwark is also incubating an economic concept which, though simple, could be tougher for the "masters of the universe" to price than any financial instrument.

"Time banking" is one alternative notion developed by Stephens' employer, an independently funded think-tank called the New Economics Foundation, which seeks to "inspire and demonstrate real economic well-being."

"It's about knowing your community and also about trust," said Stephens, echoing a weak spot of contemporary banking.

The idea is that people can earn time credits. A neighbor gives you an hour of her time -- say teaching you to knit -- and earns a credit which she can "spend" on someone else's. The scheme is only very loosely implemented on the barge moorings, where people just help each other out.

But as people strive for new models to fill the vacuum created by a crisis which many see as the end of the monetarist era, ideas like this could gain traction.

About 70 people live in the Downings Road Moorings, at the foot of plush loft-style apartments. They say they share a sense of community in what, on a late summer's day in Britain's greedy capital, can seem a rural idyll. Butterflies flutter through quince, apple trees and sunflowers planted in gardens that distinguish Downings Road from other moorings.   Continued...

<p>A garden barge is pictured among other barges at Reeds Wharf in London September 28, 2008. Picture taken September 28, 2008. To match feature BRITAIN-BARGES/ REUTERS/Luke MacGregor</p>