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
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