I enjoyed the recent BBC series Town, presented by Nicholas Crane and including Ludlow, Perth, Scarborough and Totnes. You can catch the final two episodes on iPlayer if you’re quick. Crane made a persuasive case for the quality of life in towns and gave some great examples of their resilience in the face of economic and social change.
There was one quite understandable flaw, however. His four town were all, in some way, a success. They were places you’d think seriously about living in – even a city girl like I. But what about towns that are struggling? I can see why no local council or chamber of commerce would allow access on the basis of being Loser Town. However, a wander around my home town of Maidenhead last week provided the missing link.
Maidenhead is a Berkshire town with a population of 78,000, located between Slough and Reading. It has suffered from the shopping and other facilities available in those two towns, from out of town supermarkets, and from the niche shopping and amenities offered in surrounding affluent villages such as Cookham, Taplow and Bray.
What’s left is dire. Looking around, it was clear that most people were there due to lack of choice - because they either couldn’t afford a car (young people, including mothers) or didn’t want to drive long distances (old people). There were lots of empty shops, along with a poor range of goods and very little middle market choice. Atrocious service in Boots, where I was told to go to John Lewis for a brand they didn’t stock. Now, that’s fair enough if there had been a branch around the corner, but the nearest is in Reading.
There are two initiatives that could help to drag the town out of its stagnation. Kings Triangle is a proposed mixed use development which continues to shift the town’s centre of gravity towards the station, in my view correctly in order to encourage use of public transport. But although including office and residential space, as well as a public square, it follows the conventional path of trying to encourage more consumption. It may work, because it will provide a mix of large and small retail units which may diversify the retail offer and persuade more time-poor people to return to local shopping, but it very much depends on attracting the major chain stores to the town. The plans ignore the dreadful local bus services, which need to be vastly improved – and subsidised – in order to get people out of their cars.
Maidenhead also has a Transition Town group. The web site includes an interesting series of events, and hopefully the people involved can help to promote a more sustainable approach to development. However, the problem with these kind of groups is that they tend to remain small and without real influence.
But the real issue is the bigger picture: are we seeing the beginning of changes that could be very beneficial for towns like Maidenhead? Higher fuel costs and decreasing consumption due to the economic situation could lead to the end of shopping as a leisure activity. If people returned to local retailers for essentials and followed the ‘buy less, buy well’ rule for the rest, then towns could benefit. And if more time is spent in a town, it becomes easier for it to develop a better community focus, reflecting the diversity of its citizens’ interests, and a stronger identity. All this helps with the area becoming a stronger economic hub as well.
Nicholas Crane gave us fascinating accounts of four towns that are further forward in this process, but others can follow.