On a rainy Saturday morning in February you can find the citizens of Glastonbury campaigning for a bank (report here and here of protest in January, see@kevinredpath for some very creative protest ideas). A town that for some is the acme of an alternative life is facing the loss of all their high street banks. Whilst the world thinks of the festival for the rest of the year Glastonbury is a rural market town (be it with a few more crystal & spirituality centres) and faces the same problems.
Rural market towns in England have suffered from a serious degree of neglect in the past decade, as the focus of government policy has turned to city based powerhouses and austerity. This has resulted in very few initiatives that have focused on how to get these smaller towns to develop in ways that can respond to the forces that are changing our society. At the same time through austerity many of the experienced local government officers and NGOs workers are no longer available to help in navigating those challenges. There have been some high profile opportunities, but these have tended to focus on the high street rather than thinking of the town as a whole.
As the bank protest illustrates it is changes in the support services to rural communities that is slowly squeezing their vitality and resilience. In this instance it is the opportunity to deposit cash for small business, look some one in the eye as you take a loan and the feeling that they are traveling the same road as you that is being lost. Call centres, on-line facilities and I’m sure even mobile banks can do some of the same things but what is lost is the relationship. Oddly what is argued for bigger cities is the key feature, agglomeration – pushing people together in proximity – that is being lost in market towns. Yes, there are important differences; social diversity, range of skills, and sheer scale – but the importance of trust and relationships should not be overlooked. In many parts of Europe exactly these small communities have been enabled to become engines of innovation and growth. Trusting one another, knowing one another lowers transcaction costs, fosters social capital and nurtures vibrant economies.
In many ways this protest illustrates the weakness of our rural market towns, that they need to defend basic services – it could be public transport, care services for the vulnerable, housing. Rather than looking to how better internet enterprises, 3D printing, renewable energy, adding value to agricultural products, distributed manufacturing which are all based on the advantages of rural locality.
The protest illustrated another weakness of rural market towns, one that ought to inspire greater efforts by those who live in them and care about their futures; no one in government is listening, no one at the banks cares. If the point of the protest was to rally the community then it did a great job but if it was to make decision makers be anything but rhetorically supportive then there is someway to go.