Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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27 Mar 2013

Coming tomorrow: The Totnes & District Local Economic Blueprint

LEB_cover (1)2Today’s post is really a warm-up for tomorrow’s.  Tomorrow morning, Transition Network’s REconomy Project will be publishing the first of 3 ‘Local Economic Blueprints’, for Totnes and District (those of Hereford and Brixton are in the pipeline).  I think it is one of the most important pieces of work that has yet to emerge from a Transition initiative, a real leap forward in terms of arguing the case for more local and more resilient economies.  For now, to give you a taste, here is the foreword I wrote that didn’t get used in the end, but which captures why I think it matters:

“Something remarkable is happening in Totnes. Something that is starting to be noticed elsewhere, something that’s a vitally needed story in communities up and down the country.  Greg Barker MP, former Minister for Communities and Local Government, noticed it recently when he told Parliament “what Totnes does today, the rest of the country will do tomorrow”.  The Western Morning News noticed it when they ran a lead editorial called “Hippy town comes of age”.  Chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall noticed it recently when he spoke of Totnes “blazing a trail for those who are interested in finding new heart in their community”.

It is the story of a community responding to the great challenges of our times not by placing blame elsewhere or by looking the other way and hoping it will all go away, but by coming together and applying ‘engaged optimism’ to figuring out what to do about it.  Speaking to Totnesians who grew up here the 1960s, you hear about a very different economic picture than what we have here today.  The Bacon Factory, the Unigate (later Dairy Crest) milk-processing factory, Reeves timber yard, the Art College: there was an economy here that offered work for school-leavers who wanted it.  Much of that economy is now gone, and although the town still has a vibrant high street and a fascinating diversity of businesses, local historian Walter King has written of “the long, slow death of Totnes as a living working town, gathering pace”.

This is a difficult time for local businesses.  They find themselves increasingly at the mercy of the rising costs of energy and other resources, of fuel price hikes for transportation, the increasing impacts of climate change on supply chains such as those that provide basic foodstuffs, and the impacts of the recession in terms of there being less money around, less public spending and credit being harder to obtain.  Totnes finds itself increasingly at the end of lots of very long and not very reliable supply chains, even for basic goods which, until recently, were automatically sourced much closer to home.

There is an upside though, and it is here that Totnes has an increasingly fascinating story to tell.  As the cost of transportation rises, it becomes more viable to do things more locally, and this re-localisation brings a wealth of other benefits.  It can be useful to view our economy as a leaky bucket, into which money comes from a diversity of sources, but at the moment, most of it pours out again through the leaks in the economy: shopping in supermarkets, paying our energy bills, shopping online, supporting chain businesses.  Nearly every one of those leaks is a potential local business, local livelihood or local apprenticeship. 

Rather than imagining that government funding, or a large corporation, or some wealthy saviours (like the Elmhirsts did for Dartington in 1923) are going to come riding to the rescue, this document argues that there is no cavalry coming, that our economic future is in our hands, and in our doing things differently. We can see the plugging of those leaks as an enormous opportunity for creativity, entrepreneurship, strengthening our community and reducing our environmental impacts.

This Economic Blueprint is a national first.  It’s the first time a collection of community-based organisations has sought to map the potential benefits it would gain from intentionally localising aspects of its own economy.  It puts figures on the value of a shift in focus from a high dependency on global markets and supply chains to a localised economic system. It explores how import substitution could benefit the local economy, how much money would be retained here, rather than head off on a one-way journey to distant shareholders and financial investors. And it shows opportunities in new market sectors too.

The story that we can tell in Totnes, of the town that embraced rapidly-changing times with great inventiveness, is an important one.  This document sets out how we can do it, and what the benefits would be.  There is much talk about localism at the moment, yet no-one has yet really set out what it might look like in practice.  The vision of Totnes’ economy that’s starting to take shape here gives a clear sense of what that could look like, and is already the subject of much national and international interest.

At heart this is about resilience, building the capacity of Totnes and its surroundings to withstand and adapt to, shock from the outside, what Crystal Palace manager Iain Dowie once called “bouncebackability”.  What is exciting in Totnes is that some of the pieces of this economy are already falling into place.  You will read about some of them in this document.

John Ruskin once said “all great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness”, and this work is a powerful example of that.  It is as compelling a case for rethinking how Totnes does business as has ever been produced.  It could form the foundation for a historic refocusing, an unleashing of a new culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, the cultivation of something that people from far and wide will want to see, touch, smell and learn from.  That choice is ours.  I know where I’ll be putting my energy….