Unlocking the Potential of Towns

Source: PSE Dec 19/Jan 20


Pippa Coutts, Carnegie UK Trust

Carnegie UK Trust has been promoting wellbeing in the UK and Ireland for over one hundred years.

The results of a survey the Trust conducted with IPSOS Mori in 2018 reveal that two in five people live in towns, across the UK and Ireland. Despite this number of town dwellers, our analysis and research has found that the voice of towns is crowded out by louder city and rural interests.

This might be changing as towns have entered the election fray, and with the introduction of the Towns Fund and Towns Deals. But, the UK’s towns deserve more than short-term, opportunistic support, and governments, Local Authority and towns’ leaders should take this chance to develop strategies to support towns in a sustainable way.

Towns are too often portrayed negatively, because of the challenges they face such as the ‘crisis on the high street’, decline of their former economic base or less diverse populations. Our experience, for example in the Twin Towns, is that towns have plenty of potential, and it’s not only funding that is required to unlock it, but also a focus on the strengths and assets of towns.

To highlight the positive stories of towns we decided to copy our international research on towns that had ‘turned around’ and shine a light on UK towns that are similarly moving on and developing. We repeatedly hear positive stories of towns, but for this report, we picked nine - West Kilbride and Dumfries in Scotland; Portrush in Northern Ireland; Cardigan in Wales; and Morecambe, Todmorden, Grimsby, Wigan and Totnes in England.

These case studies highlight different mechanisms for change, such as hosting festivals, using the built heritage, commissioning films, reclaiming a high street and ‘guerilla gardening’. Cutting through the variety, we found similarities, with local community catalysts (organisations and individuals) taking the lead and bringing people together to improve the look and feel of their town. This needs to be coupled with a supportive statutory sector and policy providing a boost to towns.

Key to enabling towns to thrive is understanding what matters to the people who live in them, and generally this is more than the economy: it’s about us living well together. What we’d call community wellbeing.

Through the turnaround town case studies, we found common principles for supporting towns, which will contribute to their community wellbeing and sustainable future.

The seven key principles are:

  1. ‘Anchor’ your town with a hub to stimulate relationships and bring people together
  2. Space-making is vital: creating social infrastructure that encourages change
  3. Embrace something new: recognise the need for change
  4. Celebrate local strengths and tell a local story
  5. Avoid siloes and create ways to collaborate
  6. Place your town’s values at the heart of change
  7. Have a long-term vision

We hope these principles and the report will be seen by local authorities, town centre managers and place-shapers as an inspiration for change. It is the first time anyone has identified genuine common ground across flourishing towns in the UK, and we’d be delighted to hear more stories of success so please contact us with ideas and examples.


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