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Putting the life back into our towns and cities

Getting our daily bread, cheese, beer, sausages and tea

By • Sep 4th, 2012 • Category: frontpage, Insight September 2012, Kendal, News

04.09.2012

At the start of August we pondered what the presence of independent food retailers and the quality and prices of their products tells us about the modern-day role of our town centres; how they contribute to the wider local economy and how high streets can differentiate themselves from out-of-town supermarkets? And we asked for your experiences and input into a short survey.

AMT’s Chris Wade reports on the results.

The butcher, the baker, the local cheesemaker…

For Starters:  Town Trends and Food

As we move through a period of austerity, it seems timely to look at the role of town centres and the relationships with trends in how we buy and consume food.  Whilst some may argue that the debate has already left the high street, for many this relationship still resonates in meaningful ways: many people are passionate that the choice and quality of local food on offer remains paramount; others are driven by maximising the local economic benefits from independently-owned businesses and local supply chains that connect with the countryside; and for some it’s about defining the future role and very survival of our town centres.

Certainly my own instincts suggest that food can still give people a reason to frequently visit and linger in our smaller town centres in a way that both meets expectations and offers something distinctive from larger centres, out-of-town retail parks and offerings on the internet.  If our towns can’t make a good job of feeding us and adding variety to our daily fare; what other pretentions can they rightly have?

So forget current ponderings about the fortunes of big high street names or the prospects for modern day consumables and services that we can buy on-line as easily as in town; let’s take a look at the health of our town centres in terms of how they gives us our daily bread, cheese, sausages, pot of tea or pint of beer! How is the basic food and drink offering that has taken us to town for decades faring or re-inventing itself to remain both competitive and appealing in a post-recession world where the big supermarkets appear to be getting better at capturing even more of our hard-earned cash?

It is with these issues in mind, that I have turned to twitter and other social media to put out some summer feelers and gauge the realities in ordinary towns.  In doing so, I draw gratefully on many down-to-earth contacts made through my role with Action for Market Towns but the interpretation and sentiments are my own.

Main Course: Analysis of Summer Survey

My summer survey is simple and doesn’t pretend to be scientific.  I am simply asking townsfolk to complete a two minute survey telling me if they have independent butchers, bakers, delicatessens, fishmongers, greengrocers, cafes or pubs pulling locally brewed pints.  I also ask if there is a regular market, farmers market or an in-town or out-of-town supermarket.  The idea is this can give some supplementary understanding to sit alongside the detailed national benchmarking of town centres that AMT already conducts each year.  And tell me where I can buy a pound of local sausages and wedge of tasty cheese on my travels!

I will be sharing the results in full at a talk I am giving at the Abergavenny Food Festival in September, but here for now is a taste of what I have found out so far and a flavour of the British high street in Summer 2012.

The first thing to say is that for a large part the findings so far paint a positive picture of what we can buy in our local town centres.  Bakers it seems have risen to the challenge and butchers are thriving in the cut and thrust of the British high street  in recession.

Top-marks from me go to the Yorkshire town of Wetherby where you can not only buy a full basket of local produce from the likes of Johnson’s Greengrocers, Lawler’s Fishmongers and the Oven Door but you can top-up your shopping at the weekly market or monthly farmers market.  There is a Morrison’s too in the town centre that means that shoppers can meet all their needs without wandering out-of-town or further afield.  What’s more you can get a great sense of what the town has to offer from your arm chair:  The footage of shopfronts and shopkeepers  shown on the ISPITV community webpages, tempts me to stop and shop the next time I am hurtling past on the A1. Take a virtual stroll and see if you agree.

Forest Row in East Sussex with a population under 4,000 comes a close second, as all this large ‘village’ seems to lack is a weekly market.  Likewise the market towns of Totnes, Barnstaple, Malton and Kendal all seem to be thriving rather than simply surviving. Indeed, I only marked them down because of the apparent presence of new out-of-town supermarkets that might draw shoppers away from their centres – a hot topic that we will be debating when Kendal hosts our towns Convention in October.

I also raise my glass of local ale to Biggar in South Lanarkshire which has the full spread of food and drink businesses serving its townsfolk despite there being only just over 2000 of them. The town centre has a new Cooperative supermarket and so it will be interesting to track changes and see if this adds to the local offering and – you guessed it – makes it Biggar and better!

Talking of size, from the survey results there is the suggestion of an optimum size for a ‘foodie’ town. Whilst small, isolated towns like Kirkby Stephen, Hay-on-Wye and Stromness in Orkney are largely self-sufficient in local food, there seems to be an optimum population size of 7 to 14,000 that mean people can pop in to town to food shop in towns like Cockermouth, Pocklington and Garstang. As convenience drops and rents go up, it is not surprising to find fresh food is scarce in larger towns and cities but Macclesfield and St Albans show a mix can be maintained.

There is no decisive data yet on whether supermarkets were the cause or effect of town centre decline though there is the suggestion of a trend that out-of-town supermarkets are more prominent where the food offering is either strongest or weakest. Fascinating to be reminded too that supermarkets haven’t reached every town and so the folk of Newent, Gloucestershire and Holmes Chapel, Cheshire don’t have that shopping choice on their doorstep.

My local fishmonger once told me he was shutting shop permanently  because all his “customers are dying.”  So not a surprise to see that a wide selection of fresh fish is scarce on our high streets.  More shocking for me was to find from the sample of towns that greengrocers had disappeared from nearly a third of town centres and supermarkets were often the only place to source the much lauded ‘five a day’.  Indeed fishmongers and greengrocers seem to be a thermometer to the health of our high streets.

Comparing these summer survey results with understanding that AMT already holds on types of towns reveals that trends are as much about the people as the places.  Maybe not surprisingly, the social make-up of the local population including age and income seem to influence the food on offer on the high street. Rural towns surrounded by farmers’ fields and with a greater proportion of young, single people in routine work, seem to have less of choice in the range and quality of local food than towns in attractive areas of country characterized by older persons, a tourist economy and higher numbers of second homes.

Thus Market Rasen and Liskeard – both ‘Portas Pilots’ – don’t currently match the local produce on offer in Bakewell or Aldeburgh. Wander in to your town centre mid-week and think what the average age of shoppers tells you about the long-term sustainability of what’s on offer.

Some Thoughts to Take-Away

There are lots of issues around providing food in hard times; not least of which that last year twice as many people turned to help from food banks whilst perversely obesity remains a modern-day malaise.  Whilst acknowledging these as critical issues, the purpose of this summer survey and commentary is to start to get to grips with whether our town centres are meeting our needs; and consequently whether we will continue to need our town centres.

Maybe that fishmonger’s remark thrown away with the skins and bones offers some pointers to a revived recipe for the raison d’etre for our small town centres and the role of local food in reconnecting with busy people.

I look forward to picking-up the debate at the Abergavenny Food Festival and beyond. Why, for example, does a town that hosts a nationally important celebration of food in an area that abounds with fine eateries, offer a meagre choice of independent outlets on its high street and need a food bank to ensure nobody goes hungry?  I look forward to a continuing dialogue.

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is Jamie is AMT's Communications Manager and works for AMT for 2 days per week looking after press, external affairs, website content, social media, marketing, some events and some membership support. A freelance consultant to charities, social enterprises and small businesses, Jamie co-founded and was managing director of the respected 'New Start magazine' (now owned by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies) and has worked in a PLC. Jamie lives in Sheffield, is an active rock climber and mountain biker, and is a volunteer board member for a local social enterprise.
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