The UK future-proofs the £50 banknote

calendar iconOct 15, 2018


On Saturday October 13th, 2018, the Bank of England announced plans to issue a new £50 banknote, evidently going back on previous ideas to scrap the nation's largest denomination. 

This is great news for cash! The turnaround shows how even in the face of 'cashless overhype', the public is not willing to give up trust-worthy cash, the choice it offers or, ultimately, an entrenched social duty to protect freedom of choice in all its forms. 

Currently, only the £5 and £10 banknotes are printed on the cleaner, safer and more durable polymer. The new £20 polymer note is expected to enter circulation in 2020, followed by the new £50 note (date of issue still to be announced).

The idea to scrap the fifty was floated to the public by the HM Treasury in mid-March through a call for evidence to better understand the role of cash and digital payments in the new economy

'Security printers work in a very sensitive business that affects interests of states and billions of people. It is not easy to be one of the leaders of this market, but it is an honourable duty. After all, we can’t do without cash.'
"Emma Miller: 'Oberthur Fiduciaire: over 70central banks among references'BDaily article (Oct 10, 2018)


Within the same consultation, the public was also asked if they'd be ready to give up the UK's smallest denomination: the penny. 

Fortunately, the public's immediate outcry echoed by tabloid's #SaveThePenny campains and boosted by the charity sector made it very clear that coppers matter to the British public. 

The charity sector argued that the value of the penny was worth millions to small organisations relying on traditional bucket collections for good causes. Philanthropic forces warned that the loss of the penny would destroy smaller organisations relying on bucket collections... not to mention the most vulnerable which rely on the spirit of genorosity and giving. Last year, UK charities raised £350 million in loose change, revealed the latest UK Giving Report from Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).

“At the Bank, we are committed to providing the public with high quality notes they can use with confidence. Moving the £50 note onto polymer is an important next step to ensure that we can continue to do that.”
"Sarah JohnChief CashierBank of England

It might seem odd that there was ever a debate over whether to leave out one denomination from the new polymer series, but an international trend towards culling the largest denomination notes seemed to be spreading.

Two prime examples of this are the European Union's decision to exclude the €500 note from the new EU polymer series and Prime Minister Modi's radical demonetiation move in India at the end of 2016. 

Both decisions were driven by paranoid perceptions of criminal activity and large denomination banknotes and did not take into account the impact on law-abiding citizens. The drastic move in India resulted in over a year of suffering across the nation, particularly on the most vulnerable demographics and almost laughably, did nothing to curb criminal activity. The are no reports of the impact on criminal activity from excluding the €500, but instead there is a clear increase in cybersecurity thefts. 

Yet, with dialogue comes understanding and this debate in particular resulted in a renewed awareness of the British public's rightful affinity for tangible cash... even in the face of digital trends! 

"Our money needs to be secure and this new note will help prevent crime."
"Robert Jenrickexchequer secretaryTreasury (UK)

So why is it, that even with panicked predictions about the demise of cash, people continue to use cash in all its forms? According to the Bank of England's website, it may be true that consumers use cash less than before, but it is also true that the aggregate demand for banknotes is increasing. The simple explantion: people trust unhackable cash. 

Therefore, the decision to include the £50 note in the new polymer series responds to public's preference. But it doesn't stop there. 

We have featured characters on the back of our banknotes since William Shakespeare appeared on the £20 note in 1970. It allows us to celebrate people who have shaped UK society through their thought innovation, leadership or values. - Bank of England

The field is selected by the Banknote Character Advisory Committee and then the public nominates individual people in history. In 2015, the committee asked for someone in visual arts for the £20 and after around 30,000 votes for 590 candidates across a wide range of visual arts, the choice was made: JMW Turner, well-known British painter. 

Any public response to cash decisions reveals how much the public cares about cash. 

"Our coins and notes are respected and recognised the world over and are a key part of the UK’s heritage and identity. People should have as much choice as possible when it comes to their money and we’re making sure that cash is here to stay."
"Robert Jenrickexchequer secretaryTreasury (UK)

This is was also notable when animal-rights activists protested over the use of animal fat in polymer notes. While their efforts failed and the the decision makers sided with keeping polymer for environmental reasons, finding that when compared with the previous paper-based banknote, the plastic-based notes last 2.5 times longer and leave a smaller carbon footprint. There was also a public sense of irritation towards the choice of quote featured in the Jane Austen £20 banknote.

Read BoE anouncement here

Read Gov.UK announcement here

Related articles

BBC The £50 note is changing and here's why
The £50 note will not be scrapped and will instead get a plastic redesign, the Bank of England has said. Fears that the largest denomination was widely used by criminals and rarely for ordinary purchases had prompted a proposal to abolish it. But ministers said the new version, to be printed in the UK, would be more durable, secure and harder to forge.

Bank of England Knowledge Bank Why does money depend on trust?
Historically, you could exchange banknotes issued by the Bank of England for gold. But the link between notes and gold was broken a long time ago, so nowadays it makes more sense to think of money as a kind of IOU. The reason money works when you pay for things now is...This guide explains this important link between money and trust. Imagine a world without money... 

Cash Matters UK government calls for evidence on the role of cash and digital payments
On March 13th, 2018, the United Kingdom's ministry of economics and finance announced a call for evidence on the role of cash and digital payments in the new economy via an open consultation to  ensure that the 'economy is fit for the future and keeps pace with changes in the ways that people pay for goods and services'. 

BBC How has cash usage evolved in recent decades? What might drive demand in the future?
Cash is often in the media spotlight. While some predict its impending demise, most people continue to use banknotes in their day-to-day lives...This article considers how cash usage has evolved in recent decades, how cash is used today, and why the Bank of England needs to prepare for a future where cash remains important.

Cash Matters People power saves the penny!
The UK Government has decided against pulling the penny thanks to the power of the public. The plan to scrap 1p and 2p coins was subtly presented by the Treasury through a call for evidence on the role of cash and digital payments in the new economy on March 13th, 2018. The paper also challenges the necessity for the highest denomination banknote, the £50 note.

BDaily News Oberthur Fiduciaire: over 70 central banks among references
The peculiar “club“ of private cash printers has a very confidential nature. Earlier, there was quite a number of such companies, but numerous mergers and acquisitions in recent decades have resulted in a kind of oligopoly in this unusual market. Those who survived are few and far between. 

Last Updated: Oct 17, 2018