The Civic Revival report on the Stir to Action/New Economics Foundation workshops ‘High Streets – Agents of Economic Change?’ mentions earlier work by NEF on ‘Clone Town Britain’.
This in turn reminded me of the Urban Repairs Club report on the Independence Day event organised by The Guardian’s John Harris and held in Frome, Somerset in November 2012. The report in full is on the old Urban Repairs Club site here. That report mentioned a large number of new economy projects, some small businesses, some social enterprises, some citizen-led projects. This piece collects up those mentions and sets them down as a useful companion list to that for the citizen-led projects in the High Streets Agents of Change report. How many of those projects are still going and thriving over seven years on?
Civic Revival will attempt an investigation soon, as the issue of how citizen-led projects can maintain momentum in the long term is an important one. In the meantime, any news or feedback on any of the projects listed will be gratefully received.
Frome was an early centre for the local independents or ‘flatpack democracy’ movement, when local activist residents revived local democracy and citizen action by running as independents for the previously moribund Frome Town Council. They surprised the established local political parties by campaigning vigorously for election for a tier of local government that had almost been forgotten about, with seats sometimes going unfilled and elections uncontested. Having come from nowhere to win, they then set about taking the almost unprecedented step of making a noise about all the good things they could do for the local community with the proceeds of the penny rate they were legally entitled to levy on the council tax payers of the town, and experimented with participatory budgeting and decision-making. The story in full was told in Peter McFadyen’s book Flatpack Democracy (2014), and updated in his 2019 sequel Flatpack Democracy 2.0: Power Tools for Reclaiming Local Politics.
The story of Frome and the movement that has revived town and parish councils elsewhere across the country will be the subject of another forthcoming Civic Revival piece.
What actually brought together and galvanised the Frome activist community was fighting off a planning application by Tesco for a Tesco Extra superstore near to the town centre, which would have had the effect of killing off the many small local independent retailers that gave Frome its special character.
Tesco has had its ups and downs recently and so you have to remind yourself that ten years ago it was on the verge of becoming Britain’s Walmart. (Walmart ruthlessly destroyed Main Streets across small town America in order to establish local monopolies hoovering up every single dollar of disposable income spent on retail.) NEF’s Andrew Simms book on this was called Tescopoly.
It was in this context that John Harris was pondering a national movement to save town centres, and invited grassroots activists from across the country to the Wesley Methodist Church in Frome for a one day conference on the question. In the end, sadly, a formal national citizen-led organisation to defend town centres was not launched in 2013 or since. Maybe, in 2020, post-coronavirus, the time for such an initiative has come again.
A list of the projects mentioned in the Urban Repairs Club report
- Andrew Simms, Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and author of Tescopoly
- Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass and author of All Consuming: how shopping got us into this mess, and how we find our way out,
- Rob Hopkins, founder and lead guru of the Transition Towns
- Joanna Blythman, author of The Food We Eat, The Food Our Children Eat, How to Avoid GM Food, and Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets.
- The Future of Our Food Supply
- Transition Towns: lessons from the leaders
- Campaigning against Big Retail
- Local Business Fights Back
- Nigel Dowdney from Stalham, Norfolk, involved with the Association of Convenience Stores and Red Orange Ltd, giving convenience stores a chance to pool their buying power, and Norfolk’s Buy Local accreditation scheme.
- Catherine Conway of Unpackaged organic grocery, Islington, London.
- Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: the rise, fall and rebirth of the independent record shop
- The planning system: friend or foe? – David Babbs of 38 Degrees
- Town Centres in 2050 and the future of shopping – Andrew Simms, Finlay McNab of Sustransand Dominic Swords, Professor of Economics at Henley Business School.
Town centre campaigns
- Keep Frome Local
- Ulverston, Cumbria (really Lancashire)
- Ledbury, Herefordshire.
- Campaign to bring back the Black Bull, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
- Bridgwater Forward, Somerset
Locations visited in the Greater Frome area for refreshments