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Time for towns to take centre stage

Town centres are sexy again.

Well, ok – you may now be picturing your local high street and thinking: “No, it’s really not”.

But the future of the town centre is firmly on the political agenda, with initiatives and policies coming from governments central and devolved, reports from think-tanks and campaigns led by celebrity names.

More importantly though, and much, much more exciting, there is a grassroots, community-led movement gaining momentum around the country. It’s made up of a myriad of schemes, projects, and enterprises with a common aim. And if one of them is not there already, I bet it will soon be making a difference in a town centre near you.

As I write this I’m on the train home from the Townstock conference in Halifax. For the past two days I’ve been energized and inspired by stories of how small towns around the country have been turning around their fortunes.

How? People-power. Big Society. Call it what you will – it boils down to the fact that local people – whether traders, residents, local government, young people – have got together and got on and done something to help their town.

Jane Johnston is an internet retailer and the director of Townstock. She said:
“I did this because I wanted to do something for our town. I was inspired by people…who are just getting on and doing things for their towns.”

I first met Jane when she was volunteering with social enterprise Totally Locally, one of the organisations supporting the Townstock event. Totally Locally started life as an answer to a call put out by Calderdale Council for a “shop local” initiative. Its classy marketing campaign is so eye-catching that interest in it grew and grew, and it’s now being used in 15 towns, with a further 72 – including in the USA, Australia and New Zealand – waiting to have a go at making it work for their town.

Co-founders Chris Sands and Nigel Goddard stress that it doesn’t cost very much at all for a town to implement Totally Locally; in fact, they reckon it can be launched for as little as £500. What it does take, though, is commitment and passion, doing not just talking.

Chris said: “It’s about people, quality, service, pride, and investing in where you live. It’s not about ‘Save Our Shops’. Give people a reason to be proud of where they live.”

So inundated are they by requests for help that Chris and Nigel used Townstock to launch a Totally Locally kit, so that towns can take up and run with the ideas themselves. It includes templates for posters and press releases, ideas for events, a timeline for running a successful campaign, how-to guides – and some really clever marketing tools.

The original Totally Locally campaign had the message: “If every adult in Calderdale spent £5 a week extra in their local shops and businesses instead of going online or outside the area it would result in an extra £40 million a year going into our local economy.”

Powerful, isn’t it?

Chris’ advice to the conference was: “Most people want to shop locally, but they don’t know how. You go: ‘Spend five quid a week. And they go: ‘I can do that. That’s easy!’

“Find one thing that’s simple and easy to do.”

At Townstock we heard from towns who have introduced markets to attract footfall; set up retail incubation units; run hugely successful community events – including one town which turfed the entire high street for children’s races; and encouraged shops to sell each other’s goods.

We heard from Pam Warhurst, co-founder of Incredible Edible, a project which quite literally planted vegetables around the town of Todmorden and encouraged people to help themselves. ‘Propaganda gardens’, as Pam calls them, start conversations. We saw photos of a community garden where someone’s front lawn used to be; a garden outside the railway station – even a garden in a cemetery. The idea has gone from strength to strength – and town to town.

“You can, if you want, just change the world,” Pam told us. “It’s your gift.”

There were far too many great ideas, stories – and questions – to name-check them all here. But what I learned won’t stay behind in Yorkshire.

As project manager of the Centre for Hyperlocal Media at the University of Wales, Newport, I’m overseeing the development of 3VTV, Blaenau Gwent’s very own online television channel. We’re already working with local small businesses to help them showcase themselves to the potential customers on their doorsteps. Thanks to the things I’ve heard and people I’ve met over the past two days, I’m hopeful there’s far, far more we can do to kickstart the fortunes of our Valleys towns, which are bursting with potential and passionate people.

I’m also planning to work closely with Totally Locally and some of the other projects I met at Townstock so that jointly we can offer help on what we’ve learned to towns up and down the country.

As Marc Briand, the Totally Locally town champion for Leek in Staffordshire, told us: “On our own we can only do so much, but together we can do so much more.”

For a free e-book all about the Townstock conference go to: http://redlab.co.uk/book-of-townstock/

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