One in five people in the UK live in or around small rural towns. But can they thrive? Jessick Sellick investigates.
SOME 11 million people live in or around the UK's small rural towns – and they remain the most rapidly expanding settlements in England. Many of them are traditional market towns, others former industrial or coastal towns. They are important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of employment and local commerce. However, some market towns are under enormous strain and in order to thrive into the future, communities are being asked to come up with new ideas and solutions to keep these places vibrant and sustainable.
The term 'market town' can be traced back to the medieval period and was traditionally used to describe a settlement that had the right to host public markets at stated times. Although many still hold regular markets, whether described as a "market town" or as having "market rights", their role has changed significantly, with many now functioning as visitor centres, employment bases or commuter settlements. Market towns occupy a distinctive category in the geographic structure of England – their notable geographical features often relate to being surrounded by farmland, having a market place where roads meet in the town centre and/or acting as a bridging point over rivers.
On the one hand, market towns all-too-often become lost and conflated within the categorisations 'urban' or 'rural'; yet they are inextricably connected to both rural places (supporting a number of services and amenities and often having a broader economic base) and urban areas (through a web of economic, social and environmental flows). Yet these morphologically distinctive, stand alone settlements face ever greater pressures and challenges at this rural-urban crossroads. How, then, can market towns flourish? I offer three points.
Firstly, from wanting to look at beautiful countryside to escaping from the city, there is a premium attached to living in a market town. A survey by Lloyds TSB which tracked house price movements in 113 market towns in England according to data supplied by the Land Registry found homebuyers typically spend £23,000 more to live in a market town in England. House prices in market towns across England were found to be, on average, 11% higher than their county average, while the average house price itself (£235,719) was found to be more than six times average gross annual earnings.
This premium has risen from £11,691 in 2002. Although two-thirds of market towns have higher house prices than their neighbouring settlements – as many people continue to want to live in market towns – some are faring better than others. For example, 9 of the 10 most expensive market towns are in southern England. Beaconsfield is the most expensive market town (with an average house price of £810,704), followed by Winchcombe in Gloucestershire (£405,590) and Tenterden in Kent (£377,293).
Yet Ferryhill in County Durham is the least expensive market town in England with an average house price of just £75,011 (Ferryhill is also the only town in the survey with an average house price below £100,000) – with the fortunes of this former mining settlement resonating in Peter Crookston 'The Pitmen's Requiem', which tells the story of the brass band tune Gresford and the society which produced it.
Moreover, the survey illuminates how market towns are not a homogenous category – their populations vary (from 11,600 in Ferryhill to more than 30,000 in Hitchin) but they serve more than one-fifth of the nation's population. Furthermore, the number and types of services that they offer and how they are influenced by their surrounding territory and different economic structures and circumstances also varies. As well as being viewed as dozy, quaint or affluent places where people want to live –compared to a box of chocolates or picture postcard – market towns are also under strain.
Secondly, some market towns are full of holes (quite literally), as they continue to grapple with retail competition from larger towns and out of town developments; lose employment, public services and private sector investment; and face infrequent public transport. Alongside these issues, market towns have climbed the policy agenda. Under the strap line of putting "the high back in street", Mary Portas led the Portas Review which set out a new vision to 'breathe economic and community life back into our high streets'. The resultant 27 'Portas Pilots' ranging from Liskeard in Cornwall to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, in which each town and its respective 'town team' is given £100,000 of public funding to revive their area and test out new ideas.
Whilst a pot of £100,000 may not go far beyond supporting markets in town squares or pop-up shops it could be that the Portas Pilots generate interest and positivity in areas in decline and make town centres bustle again. As well as the pilots, the Government is supporting a range of measures – from a Future High Street X-Fund (with funding to be awarded from March 2013), to focusing retail development in town centres through a 'town centre first' in planning policy, and supporting a national enterprise campaign 'Start Up Britain'; all of these initiatives are seeking to get empty spaces used. With the second wave of City Deals announced by the Government in October 2012, which sees powers being devolved to deliver growth locally; the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles recently confirmed that devolution packages should be extended to rural areas, starting with market towns.
But what often emerges is a lack of a strategic approach from policy and decision makers in tackling the specific challenges and issues facing market towns. Whereas previously market towns formed part of the Countryside Agency's Beacon Towns Initiative and (now defunct) Regional Development Agencies economic strategies; today the policy approach is more piecemeal. Because market towns exhibit different characteristics and respond to different dynamics, incorporating them into a 'one size fits all' approach will not work.
In some instances, typologies of market towns have been developed so that the role and contribution of these settlements to economic development can be assessed (see, for example, a report on secondary centres prepared by the University of Lincoln or a typology of smaller rural towns produced by the Rural Evidence Research Centre).
Thirdly, how, then, do we address some of the problems experienced by market towns to make them viable and sustainable? Action for Market Towns (a UK organisation that promotes the vitality and viability of small towns) provides information and advice and examples of best practice to support these settlements. Through the 'small towns for tomorrow' policy forum, AMT wants to address the lack of an agreed method for statistically separating market towns from other urban areas to ensure that trends in market towns are captured their special needs are not overlooked by policy and decision-makers.
More recently, and in response to the Portas Review, the think tank Urban Pollinators suggests three steps in the right direction: (1) to re-circulate money in the local economy (e.g. the Brixton Pound), (2) to make space for enterprise including locally run cooperatives, and (3) to re-design places to encourage sustainable living (e.g. Incredible Edible Todmorden).