Town with its own mind shows what can be done
It is apt that the last market town we should visit for this series is arguably the most proactive community in Britain when it comes to considering ideas about a sustainable future – and that is important because, as we've seen, many ancient centres face uncertainty.
Every town in this series has been unique in its own way and some seem to be surviving much better than others – but Totnes is one of the most vibrant, bustling places you can visit in the Westcountry peninsula.
Of course, it's got a lot going for it. The place is a handsome medieval burgh situated on the beautiful River Dart close to some of the region's major tourist destinations, so it never was going to be ignored by passers-by or turned in to some kind of unlovely industrial estate.
But as every reader will know, Totnes is about far more than cute shops, listed buildings, old castles, or scenic estuaries.
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For decades it has been something of a living laboratory – a sort of giant social experiment. I hasten to add that this most certainly does not embrace all the town – but you could, with equal assurance, describe Totnes as the nearest thing England has to the alternative forward-thinking communities you'll stumble across in places like California.
Since the nearby Dartington- inspired arts-and-crafts movement began life in the 1920s, people have been coming to the area in search of a world that seems set apart from modern post-industrial commercialism. Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst would no doubt be proud that their Dartington legacy has inspired a little South Devon microcosm where many people still do things differently today, just like they did when the wealthy pair set up their seat of learning.
The Dartington Estate was, if nothing else, a modernist venture – for example it designed and created the country's first battery-chicken farm. Not very "TQ9" that…
TQ9 is the phrase that has been coined to describe the general Totnes area – or the "muesli-and-brown-rice-belt" as others would have it. There have been times when folk have laughed or sneered at all this alternativism. Times change, though – and no one is laughing any more at the way they do things in Totnes.
Indeed, countless communities are busy emulating the pioneering spirit which was made official when Totnes became the world's first Transition Town.
It's a movement which has now spread to 34 countries and really does embrace thousands of towns, so who better to meet than one of the people who started the entire transition movement.
"It's about community resilience," explained Rob Hopkins who is co-founder of Transition Town Totnes. "It's about how as we enter times of increasing uncertainty – whether through volatile energy prices or the depth of economic problems. How do we make sure our local economy is able to withstand those shocks as well as possible?
"How do we put that bounce back in to the community in terms of food energy, housing, everything? It's a bottom-up, grassroots, movement – it's people coming together with positive solutions."
The various ingenious schemes devised by Transition Town Totnes have been well documented – like the "Totnes £" which is about to be re-launched with a wider variety of notes and other innovations.
"The local pound has certainly been helpful in getting people to have more of a relationship with their local shops and in terms of getting them to think about money and the local economy," said Mr Hopkins, who told me why his movement had set up the local currency.
"Think of a local economy as being a leaky bucket – in to that bucket comes our wages, our grants, everything – but at the moment most of it just pours out again through the holes. Every time you shop in a supermarket 80-something per cent of that money is gone from the town. Every time you pay your energy bill that money has gone.
"We've just done a survey here in Totnes that shows that every year something like £30 million is spent on food in town and £22 million of that goes out through just two supermarkets. But the good thing about that is if we can get just ten per cent of that money to stay here, then that's about £2 million going into the local economy.
"It's really important to acknowledge there's a huge amount of pressure being brought to bear on market towns through supermarkets and chain businesses," said Mr Hopkins, adding that a recent Campaign for the Protection of Rural England report found that Totnes had a really vibrant local food economy.
"That's very precious, but also very fragile. We've had Tesco sniffing about here trying to get in – we've got Costa (Coffee) trying to come here and there's a big campaign against that. On the one hand you have initiatives like Transition Town Totnes doing its best, but if you go to some local towns, that battle is lost – the towns are hanging on by their fingernails.
"Totnes has always had an important role as a kind of laboratory town – whether that's been though Dartington or whatever. It's a place that is relatively tolerant and open minded – it is a place where things get tried out. Sometimes people say Totnes is in La La Land – but when things work, people take notice.
"Totnes has grown up over the past five years and people from all around the world come to these offices to see what we are doing," said Mr Hopkins. "You could look at the high street here with all its many small shops as a kind of biodiversity sanctuary that will be reseeded elsewhere. I think in the future this is what market towns will look like other than the other way around.
"We really need to be looking at some big businesses as being like an extractive industry – designed to extract money from a local economy without putting any back. There are other ways that it could be done.
"We have all sorts of projects – people are thinking about where their food comes from and want to support local business. We have a local entrepreneur forum where people come with their ideas. We had a kind of green Dragon's Den – it was fantastic," enthused Mr Hopkins.
It was heartening to hear such things when so often talk of market towns conjures words of gloom and doom – but what about non-Transition Totnes, was it behind all the remarkable self-help ideas? To find out I visited the town's mayor, Pruw Boswell…
"The town council is a Transition member. We are with them. We are a Fair Trade council too. We are a tight-knit town – we are very protective of the town – and the community largely is a very intelligent and proactive one," was the reply.
"We look after each other – and yes, that's all part of being a Transition Town. Green people tend to want to shop locally – they would prefer not to go to the supermarkets," the mayor continued.
"And we've got it all in town – we offer diversity and quality. The place is well used by the community and by visitors because we are one of the best conservation areas in the country with buildings dating back to the medieval period. There are over 400 listed buildings in this town."
She said that many council members were against the creeping globalisation you see in many towns dominated by big chain retailers, adding that so far more than 4,000 people have signed a petition aimed at preventing Costa Coffee setting up shop in Totnes.
"The town council has said 'absolutely not'. We see this as an undesirable precedent. We do have national chains but they are fairly discreet – this doesn't seem to have that discreet persona. I'm dead against it."
Mrs Boswell told me Totnes would grow in size, but she insisted that developers had to work with the town. "Totnes is full of intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable people – if there's something they don't like – they might not stop it, but they will make sure they get the very best possible. That happened at one development – it was refused because this town found solid planning reasons to put a stop to it. What the developers wisely then did was to get together with the community and work together.
"Change will happen, but if we've got to have it – it has to be of the highest possible quality," said the mayor.
And walking around busy Totnes you can't help but think that they have succeeded.