Totnes: Britain's town of the future ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The Guardian has a look at "Transition Town" poster child Totnes in the UK - Totnes: Britain's town of the future.

Totnes hosts an increasing number of Transition pilgrims who want to see what's going on, and, says Brangwyn, "People have different expectations. We're not going to make big visual changes overnight. Transition is ground up, it's about people doing the work for themselves. So the culture has to change first.'

I look for visual signs of change regardless. Walking through town, the most obvious is the 74 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the civic hall. I wander down an alleyway in the centre of town to observe some gardens belonging to householders who were previously too busy or lacking the green fingers to make them productive. They are now little engines of town-centre production, part of the Transition Network's garden-share scheme run by Lou Brown.

"I began the project because I spent a long time in rented accommodation wandering around the town with my husband, coveting bits of garden," says Brown. "We have up to 30 gardeners across 16 gardens producing a lot of food. A quarter to a fifth generally goes to the garden owner. Kale, flowers, beetroot, you name it, it gets grown. Obviously this is great for developing local food resistance, particularly because we have a shortage of allotments in Totnes and a big waiting list. The allotment society is trying to find new land all the time, and the garden share is like a seedbed for some growers while they are waiting."

I find resident Steve Paul delighted with his ten 1.85 kW photovoltaic panels, bought through Transition's Street Scheme. "I've already avoided 0.55lb of carbon this morning," he says, checking the monitor. One notable aspect of Transition Town Totnes is that you find renewables on perfectly normal housing. Last year the Transition Street Programme was one of 20 projects to win funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It invited streets to get together to change behaviour, improve energy efficiency and then to install renewable energy systems. What's more it provided quantifiable data: more than 500 households became part of the scheme, 70% were households on a limited income, and every household cut their carbon by an average of 1.2 tonnes, saving £600 a year.

Not everything has gone as swimmingly. A local currency is central to the Transition plan. "Think of a leaky bucket," explains Brangwyn. "Any time we spend money with a business that's got more links outside the community than in it, we leak money from the local economy. What local currency does is allow that wealth to bounce around in that bucket. We've barely touched the surface of systems that will benefit the local economy. We don't just need our own pound note but a credit union, electronic means of transaction, a time bank." And although you can detect a certain fondness for the Totnes pound note on the local high street, it hasn't been as successful as Transition currency in Lewes, Brixton and Stroud. There's still work to be done.

But Hopkins reckons TTT is still ahead of schedule. "When I wrote The Transition Handbook (published in 2008) I was working up to the Energy Descent Plan, a sort of blueprint for the development of any community. But we did that in Totnes a year ago. So strictly speaking we've finished and we can pack up and go home feeling good about ourselves. But that was just the beginning. The aim of Transition is to try to relocalise the economy where it's happening, and be a catalyst for that process of intentional relocalisation."

There is a fine line between making residents aware of initiatives such as the Transition Street Project and haranguing them until they sign up. Transitioners seem of the opinion that the latter would be fruitless; the drive needs to come from the community to join up. So at the moment it is perfectly possible to visit Totnes and not be aware it's a Transition Town at all. But that will inevitably change. Local councillors already report that when they introduce themselves at national conferences and say "from Totnes", other delegates comment, "Ah, Transition Town Totnes." Word is spreading.

Hopkins is keen to stress that this is very different to David Cameron's interpretation of localism, devolving power from central government. "It doesn't mean putting a big fence up around Totnes and not letting anything in or out. It doesn't mean Totnes will be making its own laptops and frying pans. But it means in terms of food, building materials, a lot more of that can be done locally. Which in turn makes the place much more resilient to shocks from the outside."

And funnily enough Transition principles seem to appeal to politicians. As the Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting put it, in May 2009: "If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband… was one of the first to spot its potential… and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs' lists of summer reading… The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do." But what of David Cameron's coalition government? "I think Transition could be part of a genuine Big Society," says Hopkins, "but only where initiatives really give power and assets to the community."

The great plan in Totnes included the planting of 186 hybrid nut trees around town. You can just walk around and help yourself to free nuts, which can only help community cohesion. But John Crisp, a local farmer who in his spare time heads up Transition Town's new Food Hub project, is keen to point out that the vision extends beyond nuts and that, come April, Totnesians will be able to order their weekly shop online and collect it on a Saturday from the local school. "This is an initiative that connects local farmers to Transition, automatically engaging us with the farming community, of which I am one. And consumers get to buy local produce at prices comparable to those at the supermarket. Our overheads are so small that while shops and supermarkets charge a 30-40% mark up, we'll be at 10%. Meanwhile we give producers a fair return for their produce – more than they would get anywhere else."

More change is coming. Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC), an offshoot of TTT, has two applications in for wind turbines on nearby Kingsbridge hill and recently issued shares so Totnesians will be able to power-down, saving their own energy. And the TTT has designs on the old Dairy Crest building near the station as part of its bid to get more assets into community ownership.


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