Threadneedle Street may dump cotton

New banknotes to go on tour in UK

Sir Winston Churchill, who may feature on a new British fiver.

Sir Winston Churchill, who may feature on a new British fiver.


The phrase “flash the plastic” will take on a new meaning if the Bank of England gets its way and switches Britain’s banknotes from their traditional cotton-based paper to polymer.

More than 20 countries already use more durable plas- tic notes, including Australia, which introduced them in 1988, Mexico, Singapore and, of course, Canada, where Bank of England governor Mark Carney oversaw their introduction when he was head of the central bank there.

Carney is known to be a keen fan of polymer notes (he doesn’t like the term plastic) , which he says are greener, cheaper, easier to keep clean and last roughly 2.5 times as long as their paper equivalent.

Paper versus plastic
But it turns out the staid Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has been looking to make the move for quite some time, certainly before the new governor arrived. The bank has been conducting research on the merits of paper versus plastic for the past three years and has held public focus groups across the country.

Initial reaction was “positive”, it says. Nonetheless, it is clearly expecting some debate and will hold a public consultation before any final decision. The new notes, which will have a see-through image of Britannia, will be transported around the country over the next few months, with members of the public being given the opportunity to take a look and give their views.

The final decision will be announced in December. If it’s a yes, the first would be a £5 note featuring Sir Winston Churchill in 2016 and, the following year, a £10 note featuring Jane Austen.

Banknotes have occupied a fair bit of Carney’s time since he started his new job in July. He arrived to a row over the absence of historical women on the currency and he moved to pledge that Austen would be the face of the next tenner.

Machine washable
The new notes will be 15 per cent smaller, bringing them more into line with other world currencies. Other advantages are that they will be harder to forge and, for those who like to give their cash the occasional spin in the washing machine, they are waterproof.

There are some concerns that they tend to stick together and are harder to count and fold, although few problems have been reported where have already been adopted.

There was a strange tale from Carney’s homeland, Canada, after the new plastic notes first appeared there.

Many Canadians became convinced they had a secret “scratch ’n’ sniff” panel which gave off the aroma of maple syrup. The Canadian central bank denied scenting the notes but the myth persists.

Perhaps Carney should consider a fish and chips panel for Britain’s new notes?
Fiona Walsh is business editor of

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