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Why Britain thinks smaller, plastic pounds are the way to go

A sample polymer ten pound banknote is seen on display at the Bank of England in London September 10, 2013. The Bank of England is moving closer to ditching paper pounds and switching to plastic banknotes instead. The central bank said on Tuesday it would ask the public its opinion before taking a decision in December on whether to adopt polymer pounds which also would be smaller than current notes.


As if putting Jane Austen on a banknote wasn't enough, the Bank of England is now considering a major overhaul of all British notes including making them smaller and printing them on polymer.

The moves are designed largely to cut printing costs, prevent counterfeits and bring the size of British banknotes in line with other currencies around the world.

More than 20 countries around the world, including Canada, print their currency on polymer, a type of plastic film. The notes last more than twice as long as paper bills and are harder to copy.

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"Polymer banknotes are cleaner, more secure and more durable than paper notes," Deputy Governor Charles Bean said Tuesday. "They are also cheaper and more environmentally friendly."

The first polymer note in Britain would appear in 2016, when the Bank releases a new £5 bill featuring Sir Winston Churchill. The next one would be about a year later with the release of the new £10 note with 19th century author Jane Austen.

The Bank of England said the switch will save will more than £100-million, about $162-million, in printing costs over ten years for the £5 and £10 notes alone. That represents a reduction of about 25 per cent, the bank added.

Shrinking the size of the notes will make them easier to handle and bring them in line with size standards for machines that accept currency. Many stores in Britain have moved to a fully automated checkout system, where customers pay for purchases by using machines that accept cards or cash. The Bank said these machines are often designed for international currencies that are much smaller.

The new British notes will be about 10 millimetres shorter and five millimetres taller than the current bills, making them slightly larger than euros. They will also increase in size as the denomination goes up, for example the £10 note will be a little larger than the £5 and £20 larger than the £10.

There are some drawbacks to plastic currency. Polymer notes can melt when temperatures hit 120F meaning they can be damaged by ironing, the bank noted. And they tear easily once nicked.

The Bank is planning two months of extensive public consultation on the ideas and will make a final decision in December.

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The last change to the currency, the decision to replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note with Sir Winston, caused a storm of controversy because it meant there would be no women on British notes except for the Queen. After months of protests new Bank of England Governor Mark Carney announced in July that Ms. Austen, whose books include Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, would replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note.

Perhaps recognizing the outcry, Mr. Bean announced on Tuesday that there will be extensive public consultation on the new notes before the Bank makes a final decision in December. The Banks understands that the "public takes pride in their banknotes, and that changes to the design and format of notes are consequently of great interest," Mr. Bean said. "Because of this, we have decided to consult with the public before making any final decisions."

There are about 1.3 million £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes in circulation in the U.K.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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