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Totnes: a town constantly in transition?

Updated Tuesday, 19th July 2011

Although still reeling from the closure of a large dairy, the economy of Totnes is being reinvented for a new age

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I enjoyed for over 30 years the benefits of living within the hinterland of Totnes, a uniquely interesting town within the beautiful South Devon countryside. All three of my children were educated in the town's comprehensive school which, like the town itself has a long history and yet remains forward looking in terms of contemporary movements and ideas.

The school, though mostly white British in terms of ethnic make-up, has a rich diversity of students drawn from the town itself and the surrounding villages reflecting the social structure of the area and the connections between the town and its environs.

A brief look through local school registers suggests that there is something unconventional about their catchments with first names such as Halo, Lunar and Sunshine reflecting what some term as the Bohemian or 'New Age' character of the town.

This noncornformity is further characterised by the fact that the Local comprehensive school is one of very few nationally that has resisted pressures towards a compulsory school uniform. Totnes has a distinct culture and is acutely self-conscious that this is so.

TQ9 the post code for the town of Totnes has led to some residents referring to themselves as 'TQniners' distinguishing themselves from residents in other local areas.  Like many small market towns Totnes evokes amongst its residents strong feelings of identity and pride in both its history and its present day character.

The local residents not only look to the past but are aware that today's town is in many ways, not least in terms of sustainability issues and alternative life-styles, in the vanguard of developments.

Totnes river Totnes houses overlooking the river

Totnes: History and Connections

The town is situated on the River Dart at its lowest bridging point upriver from the estuary town of Dartmouth.  It forms, in a sense, the gateway to the South Hams and lies within the South Devon area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Communications, whether by river, road or rail have been the infrastructure on which the town's prosperity was built and today whilst the river is mainly used for tourist and leisure pursuits there still exists an important economic rail link to Penzance in the west and London to the east.

The town's architecture is varied and of particular interest with buildings reflecting each period of its development from Saxon times to the present day. A brief stroll around the town takes in the 'castle', originally a motte and bailey construction, which dates back to the Anglo Saxons (AD 907) who first settled here and fortified the town against the Vikings. Prior to this it is the place where according to legend the mythical founder of Britain, Brutus of Troy, first came ashore on our island – a landing marked by the locally famous 'Brutus Stone'.

It was already an important market town by the 12th century by virtue of its position on one of the main roads of the South West and the easy navigation of the River Dart. The Tudor and Elizabethan eras saw further fortification to the town and the Eastgate still dominates the High Street today.  By the early 16th century Totnes was the second richest town in Devon, and the sixteenth richest in England, its wealth being based upon wool trading and the mining of tin. This period in the town's history is apparent through a number of Elizabethan merchant's houses in the High Street.

The Butterwalk which has a colonnaded structure was built to protect the market traders plying their wares and is today an important feature of the town's architecture.  In the 19th century developments were based on a rise in the coaching trade as coaches stopped in the town on their way to Plymouth and Exeter. The popularity of coach travel finally diminished after the railway arrived in 1847.  This, then, is part of the historical context for understanding the economic and cultural developments in the town of today but before considering these it is worth asking the question, who, then, makes up the community in Totnes today?

Totnes: Migration and Diversity

With around 8,000 residents in the town itself there is a mix of the retired, wealthy down-sizers, often from London and the South East and those who have moved into the area for work and, of course, those born in the district.  South Devon is a popular retirement area and unsurprisingly Totnes has a significantly higher proportion of retired people than the national or regional average with around a fifth of the population being over 65.  Given the 'chocolate box' image of Devon towns and villages it may be surprising to some that the town has a high proportion of those dependant on benefits, and it is the case that claimant rates are about twice the Devon average and considerably higher than national levels.

The town is not without its social problems with a serious lack of affordable housing (there are low numbers of owner occupiers and higher numbers of housing association renting and private landlord renting), insufficient well-paid work and employment opportunities particularly for young people, resulting in their migration to larger towns and cities to find work.

Totnes: Towards future prosperity?

Walking around the town one is constantly reminded of its history but also confronted by its contemporary character and feel. Perhaps, the two dominant features are its array of independent retail outlets many of which are based on tourism and its distinctive 'cultural feel' with emphasis on the arts and alternative life-styles.

In 2011 the economy of Totnes , is based on tourism, a number of small and medium enterprises and the fact that it still functions as a significant market town. The local market draws stallholders from a wide area but also from the surrounding villages. There are numerous stalls selling local crafts and produce, often organic, reflecting the green credentials of many residents.  The lack of significant local industry and employment opportunities means that many residents now travel to Exeter and Plymouth for work and there are an increasing number of weekly commuters to London.

Over recent decades a number of significant local employers have pulled out of the town which has led to many businesses which were central to the economy of the town such as the Dairy Crest milk processing plant, Reeves Timber yard, Harris' Bacon Factory and Dartington College of Arts ceasing to exist locally.   The emphasis now is on the retail sector with a large number of cafes and restaurants, several art galleries and numerous shops reflecting the 'green' values of the local community.

Shops specialising in natural and organic skin care, eco goods and garments, including shoes, as well as organic foods are all to be found in the High Street. Given the impact of the recent recession on the retail sector the town has surprisingly few empty shops possibly because of its successful mixture of businesses serving both the tourist and the local resident.

Totnes: Cultural Economy?

The unique character of the town,  apparent along the length of the high street with its 'buskers' and numerous flyers and posters advertising local concerts and arts activities, is its emphasis on arts, music and culture, some of which is based on the nearby world renown Dartington Hall.

The town's relationship with the Dartington Trust activities has been crucially significant in establishing its distinct culture and the relocation of the local Dartington College of Arts to Falmouth in 2010 has been estimated to have taken £5million out of the local economy.  This clearly has implications for local businesses and also the housing market.

Housing specialists say that rather than loss of students freeing up accommodation it is more likely that landlords will sell properties if they cannot rent to students.  As prices in Totnes are high, though they are increasing at a slower rate than nationally, this may possibly lead to more houses being owned as second homes.

But, the loss of the college is seen by many to threaten not just the local economy but also the continued existence of the thriving arts and creative community which is at the core of the town's identity. Dartington College was seen not as an academic institution separate from the local area but rather an integral part of the arts community.

The local economy also has thriving  alternative health and spiritual centres, though not specifically related to the  arts college these may, nonetheless, be affected if the culture and atmosphere of Totnes changes.  For these cultural as well as economic reasons the closure of the College was the focus of a long, and often bitterly fought, unsuccessful campaign to reverse the decision.  This involved demonstrations, petitions and at one stage the seeking of a judicial review of the decision to relocate the College to Falmouth.

Totnes town centre Totnes town centre

Totnes: A town in Transition?

Increasingly then, local businesses and their employees are under threat as the local community struggles to develop new ways to revitalise the local economy in order to improve the quality of life and prospects for those living in the town and its environs.  There are two excellent examples of the way the town is adapting to changing economic circumstances with a view to preserving and enhancing its unique character.

First, in June 2007 when Dairy Crest announced the closure of their milk processing plant with the loss of 161 jobs the impact on an already fragile local economy raised serious concerns and there was a growing sense of the need to re-localise the economy. The Dairy Crest announcement was the catalyst for a group of community members to initiate The Atmos Project led by Totnes Development Trust with the aim to purchase and develop the site creating a mixed-use low-carbon and low-emission sustainable business park serving as the impetus for the emergent low carbon economy in the area.  The Trust works in partnership with a range of key local agencies including Transition Town Totnes.

Secondly, Transition Town Totnes itself is an important example of the way that the town is striving to reinvent and revitalise itself. This initiative was started five years ago and has grown into an international movement embracing more than 300 towns globally aimed at preparing communities for a future of ever more scarce fuel and energy resources.

In March 2007 Totnes was, as part of the Transition Town intiative, the first town in the UK to introduce its own local alternative currency, the Totnes Pound, to support the local economy of the town. Fourteen months later, 70 businesses within the town were trading in the "Totnes pound", accepting them as payment and offering them to shoppers as change from their purchases. 

Over the last five years the transition movement has put the town on the international map as well as pumping significant sums into the local economy through people visiting the town to find out more about the organisation. Last year the movement secured an important Government grant to look at sustainable ways of lowering the town's carbon footprint and, among a range of initiatives,  it has embarked on a Transition Streets project to promote neighbourhood schemes to install photo-voltaic cells on roofs and insulate homes.

This is another example, alongside the numerous historical ones, of the town's development being visible through its buildings and architecture. Symbolically, the Civic Centre building has photo-voltaic cells on its roof.

Today, then, the town despite economic challenges continues to be a thriving centre for music, art, theatre and natural health. It has a sizeable alternative community, and is known as a place that supports a New Age lifestyle. In 2007, Time magazine declared Totnes the capital of new age chic and in 2008, Highlife, the British Airways magazine, declared it one of the world's Top 10 Funky Towns. 

Whether or not these accolades are accurate what is clear is that Totnes, a small Devon market town, has a unique character built very much on local solutions to contemporary global concerns and one which is jealously guarded by TQniners.


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