A Touch of Frost

20190717_JM_NicolaFrost

A blog by Knowledge Guru Nicola Frost

Market Towns – for all your sheep-buying needs, and much, much more!

The Carnegie UK Trust’s recently published report, Turnaround Towns UK, shines a welcome light on what elements can support a town to thrive, economically, socially, and in terms of wellbeing. This is good news – Devon’s big on towns.

There are around 45 towns in Devon (depending on your method of categorisation), around 30 of those with populations of over 5000, but only 9 that are bigger than 15,000 people. We are distinctive as a county in that we have very few large towns. Nearly half a million Devonians live in a town – far more than live in Exeter and Plymouth combined. Yet they are frequently (wrongly) overlooked in favour of our rural image, alongside our dynamic cities.

Traditionally, chartered market towns were no less than 6 2/3 miles apart, based on how far it was reasonable to walk with livestock, and in order to protect trade from nearby competition. Even for those towns that no longer hold a market, livestock or otherwise, this history means that rural towns frequently come with a readymade hinterland, that really should be seen as part of the same settlement ‘unit’ – a historically largely self-sufficient system.

I’ve seen it claimed that the town-with-rural-hinterland model is ‘outdated’ in the modern age, when it is easier to travel longer distances, buy goods online, and get our information remotely. Who needs to go to market to catch up on the gossip and stock up on supplies these days? I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve needed to buy a sheep on a trip to my local High Street. But in many respects, rural towns fulfil many of the same functions as they have always done. Or could do, if given half a chance – this is the focus of the Carnegie Report.

Take my home town, Crediton, Described in the Guardian as ‘unpretentious’, our high point was as a sixteenth-century wool town and not a great deal has happened since then. It has a population of around 7000, and is about 7 miles from Exeter. There are two primary schools, and a large secondary school with a sixth form, drawing from many local villages. Although plenty of people do commute to Exeter, Crediton is no dormitory town. It’s possible to buy more or less all of your daily necessities locally, and there is an active voluntary sector. My husband calls it a ‘one of everything town’ (he’s from Modbury, so considers it a teeming metropolis). We have a library, a leisure centre, a thriving farmers’ market, a large parish church (plus several smaller ones), a fire station, a newspaper, an arts centre…even such essentials as a cough sweet manufacturer, a canoe-maker, and a cider factory.

crediton-highstreet

So, plenty going for us, but plenty more to do. We are extremely short of community space, for performances, meetings and activities. Provision for young people following the closure of the youth centre is lamentable. We also need facilities for small businesses and self-employed people. And there’s a significant need for some serious investment in active travel. Added to which, there are large segments of the population who feel that nothing will ever change for the better and that they are not properly represented by the various layers of local government.

Along with many of Devon’s small towns, Crediton is on a scale that is extremely conducive to community-wide development and action. Large enough to have a critical mass of people, and a range of skills and resources potentially available. Small enough to have a good shot at bringing everyone together, and a clear common identity. This is partly because people know each other in more than one way – my window cleaner sends his children to the primary school where I’m a governor; a town councillor’s son plays violin in the youth orchestra with mine. These varied ties can help build triangulated networks of experience and trust that are both robust and flexible. And let’s not forget, towns like Crediton are far from peripheral – they are the fulcrum of local life for many of their inhabitants and those of the surrounding villages. What happens here affects the whole of the wider area.

Turnaround Towns gives us a series of detailed case studies of places that are overcoming challenges and bringing people together to improve things. They are (rightly) not presented as models to be copied, but as ‘a collection of stories to inspire action’ (Totnes is among them). The diversity of local solutions is striking, but the report’s authors have pulled out some general elements that help support thriving towns:

  • Anchor organisations – also known as hubs or connectors, this is the trendy term for those organisations that, either by design or happenstance, act as links within a community, bringing people together, and working across sectors and interest groups.
  • Shared spaces – infrastructure that enables conversation, living, and business is a pre-requisite for collective action.
  • Imagination, creativity, playfulness – we need to ask ‘how could we do it differently here?’
  • Strengths-based – successful towns make the most of their assets, and build on those to move forward. They may be people, or heritage, or geography, or skills.
  • Collaborating – all the stories in the report tell of people and organisations working together, sometimes in quite unlikely combinations, to improve lives. The important thing is to make links between different sections of the community, and bring everyone along for the ride.
  • In it for the long term – real change takes time and patience, and building a lasting movement is an organic process. Ideas and enthusiasm are stimulated by seeing things happen, so it’s iterative. A common problem is over-reliance on a small number of individuals, and the resulting burnout.
  • Creating a story for the place – Developing, or enhancing a town’s ‘story of itself’ taps into the emotional side of place – the sense of pride in where we live that should not be underestimated.

This is an insightful report with some inspiring stories to get us thinking, wrapped in a more general framework. I’m convinced the focus on towns is a helpful approach for Devon, recognising their proud history and distinctive identities as well as their suitability as crucibles for locally-driven, positive change. Please do share your thoughts on how things might play out where you live! nicola@devoncf.com

January 2020