David Boyle

Why cheese and canals make all the difference

Mia Lorenz and David Boyle, Radical Economics. July/August 2005

The trouble with big regeneration schemes in the UK, according to a Sunday Times columnist recently, is that they are a kind of “urban domestos” – they “kill 99 per cent of all known existing character”.

Until recently the problem that cities and towns look increasingly the same from one side of the country to the other is one of those problems that local government tended to take in their stride.

They would look at the bottom line, maybe mention progress and how you can’t stand in the way of it – and move on.

But recently that has begun to change. It has become clearer how much people mind that their town should stay distinctive – and there are good economic reasons too.

People want to live and invest somewhere with some character and history – those are, in fact, critical assets. Also it is clear that towns where shops are locally owned, retail takings stay circulating in the local economy with continuing knock-on benefits.

The bottom line may not be the main question for decision: the issue is how much that money will remain once the developers have gone.

One of the pioneers in this emerging distinctiveness agenda is Cheshire County Council. Together with the Cheshire Rural Recovery Programme, they have broken new ground by commissioning a study of nine market towns to see what can be done to make them more distinctive.

For Alsager, Bollington, Congleton, Frodsham, Malpas, Middlewich, Nantwich, Neston and Sandbach, the nef study has set out a series of ways in which – collectively and individually – they can build on what makes them distinct.

But this was no conventional branding and marketing study.

For one thing, the study assumes that branding for towns must be underpinned by a distinct sense of place, rather than simply having some marketing message imposed from above.

For another, distinctiveness must be real. It must be rooted in local history – a living history – and resonate with local people. It is more than conventionally recordable assets.

Also, small things are just as important as big things: the texture and feel of a place are vital to how a place is perceived, and small changes – such as the removal of eyesores, even a lick of paint – can make a big difference.

The Cheshire study builds on work about distinctiveness by Common Ground in the UK, and Main Street and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the USA, as well as local work by Action for Market Towns, the Civic Trust and others.

But the study is still ground-breaking. Other towns and cities are increasingly worried about the homogenisation process, because they rightly fear that it will lead to economic dependence and powerlessness, but not many in the UK have deliberately set out to do something about it.

One is Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, who last year published their Local Distinctiveness Design Guide. This supplementary planning guidance document encourages developers to take the area’s distinct local character into account when planning new developments.

Of course, the architectural feel of a place does contribute to its distinctiveness, but at the heart of the Cheshire report is a broader view of what constitutes local assets.

All neighbourhoods and towns have these assets, sometimes hidden and impossible to measure using conventional economic techniques – which may be, for example, a healthy network of local business or local traditions – which make them distinctive.

In the Cheshire towns, these included the extraordinary volunteering efforts in Congleton, the canals that form the Cheshire Ring, the lovely industrial stone architecture in Bollington and of course, the tradition of making Cheshire cheese.

If Cheshire and its towns take the advice in the report, they will be leading the way in fighting the creeping tide of sameness that has taken over so many towns. They will also:

  • PUT the county on the international cheese map by opening cheese shops, publicising a cheese trail and rebuilding their reputation for Cheshire cheese, which dates back to the 12th century.
  • LINK local farmers back to their towns by promoting local produce and introducing local producers to shopkeepers including supermarkets.
  • BID jointly for upgrades to Cheshire’s canal system, and coordinating events along the canal to better promote them.
  • ATTRACT visitors to Cheshire’s lovely countryside by offering innovative leisure schemes such as a cooperative of bicycle hire shops that make one-way journeys possible.

But it is just a beginning. A few of Cheshire’s towns may have dwindling numbers of volunteers because of the impact of newcomers with young families, and some of them may have struggling shops, but they also have a great deal to offer.

The key is to persuade local alliances and organisations that they can use those assets – local enthusiasm, empty buildings – to make things happen.

In the short-run that will make them better, more exciting places to live. In the long-run, it will make them richer economically too.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers