Our ‘turn around’ towns are re-imagining the future
by Issy Petrie
What will our towns be like in ten years’ time? And how about in 100 years? As we begin a decade that will bring significant change to the UK, towns are already developing solutions to longstanding challenges. We want to celebrate the action that they are taking to recognise their own, local strengths and build a better system for all of us.
Analysis published last year by the Carnegie UK Trust demonstrated the importance of towns in national outcomes, including the decision to leave the European Union in 2016. Towns are important places in our national geography, and yet often they are viewed simply as backwaters in the shadows of our growing cities. With no clear government strategy for towns, places suffering from either declining economies or pressure from growth without the required support, have little access to formal levers of change.
But we believe that there is a better way forward for towns, and that by giving more power to towns to shape their futures we can support flourishing places throughout the UK.
Our new report Turnaround Towns UK looks at nine towns that are on inspiring journeys to improve the wellbeing of their community. While each town is very different – in size, location and character – their journeys were enabled by common factors along the way. When learning about our ‘turn around’ towns, we were struck by a number of things – including their imaginative approach to problem-solving, their commitment to action, the deep emotions that connected them to their sense of place, and their long-term vision for change.
From the Wigan Deal to housing on the high street, with renewable energy and international golf tournaments in between, we found that towns across the UK are imagining and building new futures for themselves. In many of our towns, local artists and creatives are at work challenging preconceptions about their town – from people who live there as well as those of us who hear more about ‘left behind’ or ‘dormitory’ towns than vibrant cultural ones. In towns like Morecambe and Dumfries, the artistic community is a hub of action and playful risk-taking, challenging the community to create ideas and take action on issues such as housing affordability and poverty – that might otherwise seem outside their ability to change. In other towns, the power of imagining a different future is shown in a new direction for commerce in the town – Grimsby’s commitment to renewable energy, or Portrush taking its place on the international golfing stage – or a new style of governance, as in Wigan. People’s willingness to be creative about their place is tied to a recognition that the way things were just isn’t working anymore. It is time for something new.
In Todmorden, two community champions led a group of local activists to revitalise their town by reclaiming outdoor spaces for food growing. Motivated by the urge to create opportunities for connection between people in the community as well as to make the most of public space for the environment, Incredible Edible Todmorden has increased participation in community activities; led to spin-off local initiatives such as equipment sharing, and social enterprises; led to the local secondary school incorporating good growing into the curriculum; and even created an appetite for ‘vegetable tourism’!
In all of the towns we learned about, communities, local authorities and local businesses are committed to taking action as a collective, anchored by hub organisations of different kinds as well as by local leadership. Many of these anchoring institutions are in the third sector, not working for profit and instead committed to becoming a regenerative resource for the community. They bring balance to public and private sector interests when taking local action on issues such as high street regeneration, local housing or cultural investment in the town. Local leaders (formal and informal) act as communication routes for the town, connecting people in different silos to create a whole-town conversation instead of a government one, a third sector one, a business one. Each organisation in our nine towns spoke easily about their pride in place, and the importance of rebuilding a sense of collective worth within their community. Some towns originally built around a market or particular industry are on a journey to renew their sense of purpose. Plans for local development are intimately tied with the emotions people felt about their town, with a rational impetus for change inextricable from their relational context.
In every town, local ingenuity must be backed by government strategy, policy and funding. Government support should aim at improving the wellbeing of town communities – which, at the Carnegie UK Trust, we understand as us all having the economic, social, environmental and democratic resources to live well together. Government support should provide sustainable and appropriate funding that enables local vision and energy. The balance of bottom-up energy and creativity and enabling support from the top down allows places to tailor opportunities to their requirements, according to the priorities of the community who have most at stake.
Turnaround Towns UK draws out local approaches to change that, when nurtured, help towns to create solutions best suited to them. As we approach a new decade, we hope that towns are supported – and have the confidence – to articulate new answers to old questions. Our report gives an idea of what that might include – shared spaces, community ownership, vibrant culture, local collaboration, regenerative economies – but there will be plenty more solutions being developed right now and in the coming years: we’d be delighted to hear about them.
Issy Petrie is Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust.
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