Transition on the High Street
It can be no accident that the main Sunday session of this year’s conference involved the visioning of a high street, the creation of a bustling hub of the everyday businesses and services we imagined to be central to the Transitioned Town of the future. Our high streets, especially those of medium sized market towns, are often a still functioning centre of local trade and a symbol of hope for the Reconomy strand of Transition.
From the publication of the Transition Handbook it was clear that small town trading was an essential element of a transition future. Examine the before and after pictures on the cover itself and can see the little market stalls with their striped awnings have replaced the supermarket which once dominated the skyline. When I first read the handbook it didn’t trouble me much who was running the market stalls and I didn’t think what the produce would be. Somehow, magically, if we stopped using the supermarket, all the things we need – and that would be far, far fewer than Tesco’s shelves usually offer, of course, would be available from small independent suppliers, much of it would be local and there would be plenty to go round. Did I imagine ruddy-cheeked farmers, with their carts piled high with produce, floury bakers with trays of loaves and stalls of local cheeses laid out in their muslin wrappings? Probably (sigh) – and I can’t be the only clueless romantic around.
In reality, you can’t sweep away today and hurry back to some early twentieth century idyll. There are already people trading locally in food, drink, clothing, stationery or more expensive electrical goods, and they are a varied bunch of individuals, struggling to run a business in a very competitive market, hugely threatened by every new supermarket or big chain that opens in the locality and the first to suffer when people’s incomes drop as they are often perceived as expensive. It is no surprise that their wares are often sourced globally and they struggle to compete with supermarkets on quality, variety, price. Local trade likes Transitioners because of their declared intention to keep money circulating locally but that doesn’t mean they share many other Transition ideals. The result is often a strange kind of Transition hierarchy about which shops people use – not only can you not be seen in the supermarket, but you might need to prioritise the workers’ co-operative over the sole trader, the weekly market stall over the small shop, this box scheme over that one. It is all to do with how ethical or organic or local they are – or some combination of all three. Lancaster can’t be the only place afflicted by this kind of thinking – which often seems to miss the point that we need all our local traders and if they are not there, no-one with experience and business nous will be available to listen to our ideas and take them on board.
Some places, Totnes, Lewes, Cloughjordan have made a concerted effort to involve their local traders in a web of relationships that mean many traders, have come to share with their customers the ideals of local trade. The amazing show of solidarity over the Costa campaign in Totnes was an “aha” moment for me. Like many places, Lancaster city centre has been overtaken by the coffee outlets in a relatively few years – would we ever have resisted their coming in order to protect our local tea shops? No. For two reasons – firstly, we don’t have those loyal, protective relationships with our small cafes and secondly, most of the local councillors on the planning committee would have laughed in our faces. Well maybe not so different from South Hams there. The size of a locality does seem to alter the strategies you can use to engender loyalty and we have been interested and inspired by the progress of both the Bristol and the Brixton Pound. In Lancaster we now have the Realm Exchange, a complementary community currency issued by members of the exchange community and backed by their commitment to provide goods and services in return for the right to issue money into circulation. Basically, it is closer to a LETS scheme than a local currency but every realm earned has tradeable value amongst exchange members – it can serve as money. Its aim, in the words of its originator and main promoter, Tony Haslam, is to get away from:
“the dominant monetary system”
in the hands of the banks and to allow trade to continue even when the amount of £p currency in circulation falls. A recent visit from Thomas Greco has helped us think through the ways local businesses of all kinds could use realms on their own or in combination with sterling in order to trade. We are in the infancy of the project but it promises to be a possible way in which Transition City Lancaster can promote local business here and support those who trade locally to make a living in difficult times.
Essentially it seems that strong relationships between local traders and a Transition initiative are the basis of spreading Transition ideas through a trading community. But gaining some credibility with over worked local-as-can-be people who think we are under-employed dreamers or “greenies” is not always easy. If we want to be business, we have to be the business. Slaithwaite, since its greengrocers was featured in the Transition 2.0 film would seem like a place already well on with transition. In fact, according to one of the organisers, the big breakthrough has been recent and the result of a hugely successful Totally Local event in September. If you can manage the detailed organisation, including major items such as road closures, bring in the punters and engender a huge sense of local pride, then people take notice. There’s a fantastic comment on their Facebook site from, you would guess, a random local person:
“saving my pennys to spend locally.”
That’s progress. If I were one of the Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Town (MASTT) members I’d be more than satisfied. They are clearly not people to rest on their laurels though – from the Facebook site it’s obvious they had another event – a Christmas Fair, just yesterday.
Since they have the Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite, do you think there might have been “ floury bakers with trays of loaves”? (sigh) Wish I’d been there, just in case …