Na­tional park’s new ini­tia­tive of­fers sup­port to towns and villages

Dart­moor Na­tional Park Author­ity is launch­ing a new ini­tia­tive called the Ter­rific Towns and Vi­tal Villages pro­gramme. Martin Hesp reports

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Countryside -

THE so­cial and com­mer­cial in­fra­struc­ture of small ru­ral towns is be­ing ham­mered – it is a fact no one can dis­pute as glob­al­i­sa­tion changes the mar­ket­place and in­ter­net shop­ping rev­o­lu­tionises the way we buy our goods and es­sen­tials.

Now a na­tional park author­ity is launch­ing a new ini­tia­tive it is call­ing the Ter­rific Towns and Vi­tal Villages pro­gramme in part­ner­ship with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Kevin Bishop, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Dart­moor Na­tional Park Author­ity (DNPA), said: “We’re do­ing it to pro­vide sup­port for our towns and villages as they are as much a part of Dart­moor’s spe­cial qual­i­ties as our tor-strewn moor­land.”

“First it was out-of-town shop­ping cen­tres and su­per­mar­kets – now peo­ple can shop from their liv­ing room and have things de­liv­ered to the door in less than 24 hours,” said a spokesman for the new ini­tia­tive. “At the same time, costs for high street retailers are in­creas­ing. Busi­ness rates, staff costs and bu­reau­cratic bur­dens are ris­ing while high street foot­fall and spend falls.

“Of­ten, fur­ther con­straints such as a lack of, or ex­pen­sive, park­ing, poor in­fra­struc­ture and a de­graded pub­lic realm fur­ther com­pound prob­lems to cre­ate a per­fect high street storm.

“But things may not be all doom. Re­search points to a con­sumer de­sire for ‘ ex­pe­ri­ence’, in­ter­ac­tion, known prove­nance and qual­ity, old cus­tomer values with a mod­ern twist.”

The first Dart­moor com­mu­nity to feel the ef­fects of the new ini­tia­tive is Ash­bur­ton where var­i­ous lo­cal peo­ple have come to­gether to form a “Town Team”.

One of the group’s lead­ing lights is Ash­bur­ton post­mas­ter Stu­art Rogers, who says the model be­ing pro­moted in the town is one that could be repli­cated across the West.

“I want to start a big con­ver­sa­tion to get more peo­ple back into our towns and com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “It’s all too easy now to go on­line and do all your re­quire­ments – to click away and pay on­line. I think we’re get­ting to a point where we are tak­ing our towns and village too much for granted.

“It is a chal­lenge run­ning a small busi­ness or run­ning the post of­fice. I work re­ally hard to make a dif­fer­ence ev­ery­day, but peo­ple need to re­alise that while we have amaz­ing places here in the South West, like Ash­bur­ton, we need to make sure ev­ery­one knows they are not mu­se­ums and that we are ab­so­lutely reliant on cus­tomers.”

A DPNA spokesman de­scribed Mr Rogers as a ‘com­mu­nity dy­namo’.

“He has helped save the li­brary by re-hous­ing it in the post of­fice. The post of­fice is now the only provider of fi­nan­cial ser­vices to that ru­ral area fol­low­ing the clo­sure of the banks. He has in­stalled an ATM and a per­cent­age of each with­drawal goes to a com­mu­nity fund to sup­port lo­cal ini­tia­tives. This, in turn, is sup­ported by lo­cal busi­nesses which match the fund. Stu­art is also work­ing with Ama­zon – if you click and col­lect from the post of­fice he do­nates money to the lo­cal com­mu­nity fund.”

Mr Rogers has also worked with lo­cal traders to pro­duce a new Ash­bur­ton cal­en­dar (a la Cal­en­dar Girls) to pro­mote the town, lo­cal busi­nesses and try to get peo­ple to shop lo­cally.

“I put my head above the para­pet be­cause I think if some­one doesn’t start the big con­ver­sa­tion – un­less we have a plan now – the al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity is scary,” said Mr Rogers. “Small busi­ness needs a help­ing hand from gov­ern­ment and bu­reau­cracy – we have to get so­ci­ety to re­alise what they’ve got be­fore it’s too late.

“We have to in­volve young peo­ple. In Novem­ber for ex­am­ple, I am tak­ing some lo­cal young­sters to meet top bosses at the Post Of­fice so that they can have a con­ver­sa­tion. As far and I know, that’s never been done be­fore.

“I want to fly the flag for ev­ery com­mu­nity in the South West. We all need to work to­gether. We need our cus­tomers to be in­volve­ment in a con­ver­sa­tion about our fu­tures. This is big­ger than one town – big­ger than one post­mas­ter.”

Ash­bur­ton Arts chair­man Dr Sue Maddock, seems to agree: “It is time to fo­cus on small town in­no­va­tion and dis­tinc­tive­ness and to ex­plore the im­por­tance of scale, lo­cal sup­ply chains and re­la­tion­ships,” she said.

Dr Maddock, who also hap­pens to be vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of pub­lic in­no­va­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of the West of Eng­land, added: “Many ru­ral and coastal small towns are in de­cline, but there is ev­i­dence of so­cial en­ter­prise and the wider so­cial economies lift­ing the spir­its and the econ- omy in small towns in parts of the coun­try such as the South West. A re­vival lit­tle recog­nised by pol­icy mak­ers.”

“Ash­bur­ton was the ob­vi­ous choice to start our new ini­tia­tive,” ex­plained a spokesman for the DNPA. “The town coun­cil and cham­ber of trade were al­ready work­ing to­gether to pro­mote the town and de­velop a unique cus­tomer of­fer.

Now a ‘Town Team’ is up and run­ning and gen­er­at­ing loads of ideas – build­ing on op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­crease foot­fall and trade, en­cour­ag­ing dig­i­tal in­no­va­tion, sup­port­ing start-ups and ex­pan­sion, ‘ up-skilling’ busi­nesses, ex­plor­ing new mar­kets.”

Other towns and village across the South West will no doubt be watch­ing this Ash­bur­ton-in­spired space.

Post­mas­ter Stu­art Rogers, a lead­ing light of the Ash­bur­ton Town Team

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