For some towns the Northern Powerhouse is remote and change must come from within - RSA

Blog: For some towns the Northern Powerhouse is remote and change must come from within

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    Rod Hyde
    Tech Director
  • Fellowship

The Northern Powerhouse is seen as being very remote by the towns at the edge of the region. Being excluded from regional strategic plans is not a new experience for a town like Berwick-upon-Tweed and there was a recognition that change must come from within. This was the major conclusion of the third of four round table discussions that form part of the RSA Fellowship’s initiative entitled “Northern Powerhouse: where do market towns fit in”.


The third round table discussion of the RSA Fellowship’s Market Town Initiative took place in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the 23rd November.

Berwick-upon-Tweed is a coastal market town of about 12,000 people situated on the north-east coast of England and only 2.5 miles from the Scottish coast. It is closer to Edinburgh (56 miles) than Newcastle-upon-Tyne (65 miles). The town has a good harbour and grew prosperous due to the importance of transport by sea. It is no longer a transport hub and the group felt that economic regeneration of the town was long overdue.

Cultural and Heritage?

The discussion opened by highlighting the strength of the culture and heritage offering in the town. Could regeneration be triggered by focusing on the town’s cultural heritage? But is it the right opportunity to pursue? The grass roots concern in the town is about jobs, housing and transport. The town does have two industrial estates and good access to the sea and so what about a focus on renewable energy for instance

Towns not a priority

Many market towns find that they are not a priority for local government. Funds have been and continue to be cut and there are other priorities. Although market towns generally have areas of deprivation, the needs in other parts of a borough will be higher and so any market town regeneration project that requires substantial public funds is unlikely to be sanctioned.

Generally market towns are left to their own devices. However a town council’s opportunity to do anything significant is severely limited by its ability to raise funds. A town of say 10,000 people will only have a total budget of £100-200k per annum.

Berwick-upon-Tweed is on the edge of its borough and is on the England-Scotland border. Edinburgh is probably just as important to the town’s residents as Newcastle and changes in the political landscape mean that the border has become more significant over recent years. Overall then attempting to involve neighbouring city regions in market town regeneration schemes is unlikely to be successful.

The Berwick discussion group was aware of the potential in the town and showed a high level of frustration, exasperation, anxiety and even anger when describing the lack of activity.

What next?

With the recognition that any initiative had to come from within, the discussion returned to the strength of the cultural and heritage offering.

The town has a wealth of cultural and heritage assets but there was a feeling that not enough was being made of them. In particular, inadequate publicity to attract visitors and then a range of factors which reduced a visitor’s time in the town were mentioned. The opportunity to introduce vocation education to take advantage of the increased activity should also be explored.

The people around the table talked about the need to work together and have a more joined up approach but that requires trust. Introducing a café culture as a catalyst was mentioned; there are many coffee shops in town but no platform to engage with like-minded people and build trust.

Should the town rely on a handful of volunteers to make a difference? Many of us have experienced volunteer burnout and many volunteer initiatives prove to be unsustainable. But here is a quote from Margaret Mead to respond to the world-weary cynic:

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Post Script

The RSA Fellowship could consider three ways to support market towns:

  1. One of the RSA’s three key themes is to enable people to take an active role in solving the problems in their own communities. Berwick is not unusual in realizing that it needs to find solutions from within. The Fellowship could develop a project to find ways of supporting people to address this problem.
  2. The limited evidence generated by the Market Town Initiative indicates that some market towns are not able to provide relevant vocational education. The Fellowship could explore this further and link it with the recommendation of the Frodsham discussion relating to skill-shortage.
  3. The RSA has recently published a Heritage Index and is appointing Heritage Ambassadors to stimulate local conversation about heritage. The Index could help with a town’s publicity.

Please contact me if you would like to be involved: [email protected]

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  • It is commendable and important that the RSA is raising this theme. If the big city players can take an inclusive 'city region' view then they can generate an everybody-wins scenario. Collaboration with adjacent towns would provide for a regional economy that was all the stronger through collaboration and co-production building on respective skills and assets. In the MBA jargon they will secure synergistic outcomes.
    If the cities take a seemingly more self-serving perspective, their adjacent towns will suffer. They will either become decaying backwaters or subside into mere commuting bases in the service of the city. The ultimate outcome would be a less optimal regional economy. That would be to the cost of all then region's inhabitants (and the national economy).
    Lessons can maybe be learned from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Both have done remarkable well in the post de-industrialisation era; especially Glasgow with its precipitous fall from a heavy industrial base and re-invention. I wonder, however, if their successes have been, in different ways, at much cost to the towns and other older centres across their respective regions.
    It would be a huge missed opportunity if that turned out to be some of the outcomes of the Northern Power House and City Deal initiatives in England.