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28 Nov 2013

Frances Northrop on how Transition Town Totnes are responding to austerity

For our last piece in our month’s theme of austerity and how Transition responds to it, we head to Totnes, one of the first Transition initiatives.  What does austerity look like there, and how is Transition Town Totnes responding to it?  We asked Frances Northrop, TTT Project Manager.

While from the outside Totnes may be thought of as a relatively affluent and unaffected by public spending cuts, that’s not entirely the case.  The reality is more complex.  With Transition Town Totnes increasingly seeing its work in this context, it felt like an appropriate way to wrap up our austerity month.  As usual, you can either listen to/download this podcast, or read the transcript below.  And please, let us know what you think.  Comments welcome below.  


What does austerity look like in Totnes?

That’s such an interesting question. It’s a question we should ask ourselves more, wherever we live.  I think a lot of it’s hidden. I think austerity has been happening for a lot of people for a very long time, and there’s really entrenched poverty across the UK in different places. I think that because we don’t see it, it’s a bit like the classic walking past somebody who’s homeless in the street and you don’t engage with it – it’s easy enough to engage with it.

If your work doesn’t bring you into that arena then it just coexists happily, or unhappily, with other people’s everyday lives.  I think what it looks like, particularly in Totnes, is that people are really reliant on part-time work, on zero-hours contracts and seasonal work, because a lot of the work is in agriculture or in the tourist sector. In-work benefits are probably quite a large scale of people’s income.

Also, the housing stock isn’t great. When we did the Local Economic Blueprint, we did some research for that about what the standard of housing was, using the Thermal Homes comfort statistics. It showed that it was staggeringly low-quality housing, that there wasn’t very much insulation, people were living in very cold houses. A lot are off gas, people living in the villages and outer areas of Totnes, so they’re spending more money on energy than other people. Also, payment meters are a classic way for people who haven’t got very much money, that they pay a lot more for their energy full stop, even if they’re on mains electricity.

The perception from outside is that Totnes is doing alright for itself really. To what extent is that image of Totnes misleading and possibly even dangerous in terms of masking that?

It is misleading, and it becomes dangerous when people think that everything’s ok.  Partly because it’s like something that somebody talked to me a long time ago about rural communities, affluent rural communities, when I was working in the home counties. It’s double deprivation. If you haven’t got very much money and you live in the big city where lots of other people don’t have very much money, you’ve got access to cheap stuff, whether or not that’s the stuff that you want people to have in an ideal world.  Cheap supermarkets and cheap goods.

Frances with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Rob Hopkins campaigning for the Atmos Totnes initiative.

Also, there are more people to trade with, so if you’re trading your skills or bartering, there’s more people to do that with. Whereas in a town like Totnes, there’s less people like that, so you haven’t got the economies of scale to make it worthwhile for a low-cost supermarket to come or cheaper shops, so you end up with very high-end shops where you can’t afford the things or you perceive that you can’t afford them because – particularly around local food – of perceptions about seasonality and it being a middle-class thing.

So people end up being doubly deprived. Also, psychologically, living alongside such affluence, when you’ve got people here who’ve sold houses and been able to buy places and do them up, that slight gentrification of areas and the perennial thing that Totnes has always had of second-home owners and affluent older people retiring here. Psychologically, that’s really quite damaging.

How has the work of TTT sought to address that, what are some of the ways in which that’s happening?

I think it’s happening in lots of really subtle ways. It’s building on the trust and goodwill of work that’s gone before, and the networks that we’re building. Our food work, principally, started as the strongest group of Transition Town Totnes. It principally started because people wanted to grow more of their own food, so the Garden Share project and the allotments association. But since then, it’s formed a real network of people. We recently held an event called Food for the Future and part of that discussion was about crop gaps and what crops we could grow more locally that might have grown here before and don’t any more.

Food for the Future event, Totnes.

But there was a full representation of everybody from the whole cycle of food, from people who grow the food right through to what we do with that surplus food and what we do with the compost to go back into the soil to create the circle again. There was a real willingness there, there were people there who work at the drop-in centre for the homeless, who give out hot meals to people who are homeless. There’s Food in Community which is a really fantastic, relatively new enterprise who work with Riverford, taking their surplus vegetables and distributing them to community projects, people who work with people with mental health problems and the local children’s centre and schools.

So the interest that was there, Riverford was there as well, and some of the restaurants and the cafes.  The conversations there weren’t just about how can we grow the local food economy, they were about how can we enable that local food economy to also help people who haven’t got enough to eat.

One of the things that seems like TTT is doing at the moment is what some people call “the Power to Convene”. Actually TTT, thanks to its networks and connections, has the ability to get people in a room. You did that recently with the Caring Town conference. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

That was I think a real tribute to the trust and goodwill that TTT has built up over the last 6-7 years since we started. Basically, one of the strands of the blueprint was looking at health and care and how important that is for the resilience of a place. People need to stay well, they need to stay personally resilient and healthy. We need to acknowledge how much we need to care for each other and get back to a situation where people are looking out for each other more.

It was also about how existing resources that go into health and care from the public sector, over the years have very much been one-size-fits-all. You’re old so you have a day centre, you’re a learning disabled adult, you can have the same day centre. Those ideas that that’s enough for people, that you’re providing some care.

What we wanted to do was get people together in a room and ask “if you looked at a place and said what would it look like if it was at its most caring?”  We put an invitation out and invited voluntary groups from the town who are involved in broader wellbeing and health and care work, and we invited people from the public sector who are also involved in that kind of work, so people who work in mental health, but also the fire service, the police, drug and alcohol workers, homelessness support, general social care.

Lots of people responded to that question, “what would a caring town look like?”, they obviously wanted to have that conversation. What happened when we gave them permission, convened them in the first place which was lovely to be able to do that, their being given permission to just imagine what it would be like if their service, as a public sector professional, could be delivered in a different way that was place-based and crossed over other people’s services, so people weren’t delivering in silos and the public sector was working with the voluntary sector, and then the community beneath that were looking out for each other.

It was just joyous. There was a real, palpable sense that it was a way that people wanted to work in the future, and at the end of it, I think there were about 50 people there and 95% of them signed up to be part of the next steps to look at how that might manifest.

One of the tensions austerity throws up is that it’s about cutting back on public spending, and the private sector will pick up on any of the profitable bits, and communities are somehow supposed to come together and pick up all the leftover bits in any spare time they have beyond doing anything else. That seems to be the model. From what you get a taste of from here or what you think is going into the future, is that the best way to do it? What’s the tension between picking up things the public sector is dropping but which the private sector doesn’t want? Does it mean that we end up just colluding with the wider agenda?

That’s such a big question.  It’s the biggest thing that troubles me, that you’re enabling, that you’re complicit.  Complicit’s a good word. I’ve morally struggled with it. I think where I am at the moment with it personally is that yes, it is enabling to an extent, but if you can do it in a way that’s quite clever then you might be able to change the ideas of the public sector about how they commission, or whether they do always commission from the private sector.

Frances defending the No To Costa campaign on ITV.

The other thing that drives me to do it is that there are some people out there who are desperately vulnerable and we have to help. If we’re the people who can assist with that then we have a responsibility. It is a massive tension.

Before I started working at TTT, my work was working with the public sector, looking at how social and community enterprise could scale up and then voluntary activity on the ground could be the right solution to delivering public services, to meet the needs of people. So, not having this one-size-fits-all, but having a real needs-based approach – actually what do people need in a place.

Unfortunately, that work was happening too early. That work was happening really well, the Social Enterprise Coalition and Locality are doing loads of really great work around how that could be enabled. But austerity kicked in too soon for local authorities to be won over to that, so they still commission large contracts to big companies based on a silo-based way of working.  Care homes for old people, children’s services, under fives. They don’t look at it in a holistic kind of way.

In some ways, this is exciting with some of the people in the room at Caring Town conference because they’ve probably been thinking the same thing. What would it look like if it actually was meeting people’s needs and was holistic and place-based?  In that way it’s really exciting. That’s enough to make me think there’s a chance there to try and win some minds over from that big scale contracting out and stuff.

One of the things that’s unique about TTT is that it has the role that you occupy, that role of Project Manager sitting in the centre, avoiding that doughnut effect that we see in other places where all the energy rushes outside to the projects and you don’t have anybody at the centre linking it all together. What’s your sense, from having done that role for nearly three years now, about the value that it brings?

I was going to say it’s invaluable but I would say that, wouldn’t I!  Actually, it is invaluable because people need to feel held.  There are some people doing some incredible work in Totnes, within Transition and the broader community. What a lot of them need is to know that the centre is being held, that there is somebody or some people who hold the narrative, and all the time they’re spinning this work into the narrative so that when we’re talking about the work of Transition we’re celebrating what people are doing.  That what they’re doing isn’t just for the goodness of what they’re doing – which is enough, actually – but to say it’s part of this greater whole, and this is how it fits together and this is why the work we’re doing is so important.

What did the Local Economic Blueprint highlight or reveal that is so important in actually designing meaningful responses to austerity, do you think?

I think the Blueprint and the associated work that we’ve done around Reconomy has shown, I think it’s a term you used actually, that it’s about internal investment rather than inward investment. I really liked that. Our whole society is geared towards big-scale solutions to everything instead of those interactions that you have every day that actually build something more beautiful.

TTT's Incredible Edible Totnes initiative being filmed for a TV appearance.

The Blueprint, for me, to be able to show in it that actually these big employers that came before, that have gone, they were never actually the big employers. It was this network of small businesses that were something like 70% family owned, 80% small businesses with 10 or under employees. It was showing that it was those businesses that interact every day and build community and circulate money locally, and provide the infrastructure that communities really need, rather than somebody coming and building a factory, employing some people, and then probably pulling out a few years later and ripping out some of the fabric.

David Cameron’s now talked about us being in a state of “permanent austerity” and it looks like an incoming Labour government would uphold most of the cuts that are already in place.  From the 7 years of Transition here and your sense of it and the learnings from what’s happened here, what more general lessons do you think Totnes can offer to communities up and down the country who are faced by austerity?

 There’s something about Totnes being quite particular that is true, but then I look at other places like Bradford, where I’m from. I was at a conference in Leeds, which is nearby, about the food work that we’ve been doing here, and somebody said, well it’s alright, you can do it in Totnes, but what about places like Bradford and Leeds?

Actually, access to land is easier in places like that. There’s more land, more unused land that could be appropriated. There’s more of a history of self-organising in those places, that if you could revive that again, which is happening, that’s happening with other organisations within Transition, that the things that we can model here because it’s uniquely geographically like it is and because it’s surrounded by a lot of growing land and traditionally agricultural, and all the different reasons why Totnes is like it is, if we can model it here and then parts of bits of that are done elsewhere then I’d be happy with that.


What I wouldn’t be happy with is if we’re doing everything that we do here and it didn’t inspire people elsewhere to be self-organising, and all that happened was the government saying ”they can do it in Totnes so why can’t you do it everywhere else?”  I think we really have to guard against that and think about how we can pull together. I think that’s about working, not just with our colleagues in Transition, but ones who are in the Co-operative movement and the Community Land Trusts and in Development Trusts, social enterprise movements, so those other models, if we can pull together, we’ve got a really strong voice.

In the beginning, TTT was really framed as being a response to peak oil and climate change. Would you say that it’s now equally a response to austerity as well? Where does it sit there in terms of being a driver for TTT these days?

I almost think the thing about peak oil and climate change was a consequence of the world we’ve managed to construct because we had cheap fossil fuels, and we’ve been able to construct this economy gone completely insane, the free market economy.  So it’s part of the broader picture. It’s a response to living well, really. To being resilient. But we want everybody to be resilient, not just, “this is our place and we’re going to forget about you”.

It’s about the things that are important to people. What do we need and what’s important. Increasingly that’s what everybody is talking about. I think Transition was there first, and everybody now is talking about energy and climate change and the impacts of climate change, because it’s happening now. It was happening before, but now people are acknowledging it more. You don’t need to talk about that, but you can talk about how we’ve gone too far with this excess of everything that was fuelled by that fuel, and so it’s a symptom.