Category: The Great Town
Date of visit: 2014
Responding to geographical isolation
A great example of how to manage economic development and sustainability in an isolated town with very poor links to other urban centres and facilities.
A good example of very strong partnership and collaborative working between a number of agencies and the local community, including the cooperative response to disaster, as well as development.
An exemplar of a symbiotic relationship between a small town and its university, Aberystwyth University.
An exemplar of night-time economy management, that other towns and cities could learn from.
A fine example of a town that is manifestly very proud of its cultural uniqueness, including the celebration of language and the National Library of Wales and its wonderful setting.
Aberystwyth is a modest town that punches above its weight. Despite a 2009 consultants report saying that it has no clear USP, it is unique in many respects. This includes, the above average cultural facilities created by the presence of the University Arts Centre and the National Library of Wales (as well as good local museums), a new privately funded railway museum and transport collection. The very effective management of the night-time economy; its low crime rates; its ambition and last, but not least, its stunning location on Cardigan Bay.
The most striking thing about the town is its relative isolation, a factor that strengthens its development. The main road across mid-Wales has only two lanes and the only train line runs east-west from Birmingham with a two-hourly service, although there is a campaign for an hourly service. Incredibly, train journeys to north and south Wales must be made via Birmingham. Therefore, it is the administrative, health, educational cultural and retail centre for a large part of mid-Wales. Its isolation means that it has a very close relationship with the rural community in the surrounding beautiful landscape of mid-Wales; and one of the selling points that continues to bring visitors and university students to the area. The 19th-century funicular railway on Constitution Hill that leads to a massive camera obscura is a fine example of the way the local topography has been exploited to benefit the local economy.
Ironically, the gloomy, Scandinavian-influenced dual language detective drama, Hinterland, is filmed in and around the town. The Ceredigion County Council invests in this production, arguing tourism and economic benefits.
Its position as the main town of mid-Wales, seaside resort, holiday centre and a major British university town makes partnership and collaborative working essential. As its historic function as a harbour serving the needs of local mineral extraction, fishing and agriculture has declined it has had to reinvent itself and now has to tackle the issues of a declining British seaside holiday culture, something that it has done very well. The harbour has been remodelled as a small marina with low rise housing but still serving working fishing boats. The town has a mix of relatively up-market independent businesses, national high street and typical seaside shops. Town improvement grants have ensured that buildings retain their character and stay well maintained. Its Farmers Market, drawing on genuine local produce, recently won the BBC Radio 4 award for the best farmers market in the UK. It has encouraged a new Tesco store to locate near the town centre (thanks to the Council ownership of a good site and its policy of resisting of out of town development).
It manages this mix without having the overtly middle class feel of some South West resorts or the depressed nature of many East coast resorts. It still has many issues but local partnerships are aware of these and are tackling them. One of the best examples was the response to and recovery from the storms of the 2014 winter. The promenade and many adjacent buildings were devastated by high seas and flooding including the destruction of a Grade II listed Victorian shelter. Six months on there is no evidence of this except for the smell of fresh paint thanks to the dedication of the Council, local businesses and a variety of different agencies in getting the town back in business for the holiday season.
The core population of the town is around 12,000 and, in term-time, the university population of around 10,000 students nearly doubles this. Therefore, the local authority has to work closely with Aberystwyth University in both the development of the town and accommodating the student population. The committed partnership of local authority, the police, community organisations and local hospitality businesses has enabled it to obtain Purple Flag status and become a national exemplar for managing the night-time economy. It is a winner of the hospitality industry ‘Best Bar None’ award and the chair of the partnership has advised many other towns in Britain.
Cultural diversity in Aberystwyth is largely expressed through language as 31% of people in the local area use Welsh for day-to-day conversations. The town celebrates this by displaying the flags of other minority nations and areas across the world and there are Welsh language poems set in the promenade. It does not have a visible multi-ethnic community, however its reputation for being a safe place attracts a relatively high proportion of Muslim women and overseas students to study there.
The quality of the architecture is varied but the most distinctive are the crinkled stainless steel low-cost facilities for sixteen start-up arts enterprises for Aberystwyth Arts Centre, by the Thomas Heatherwick studio. The new student village, on a former farm, has been designed to express an agriculture vernacular, not in a romanticised pastiche style, but reflecting the form of Dutch barns and other rural buildings. Within the town, development makes good use of existing buildings and the majority of the new buildings have been designed sensitively to blend in with the seaside town aesthetic. For example, a new building will shortly replace the rather rundown covered bandstand on the promenade, but will be contemporary and more functional for community use. The original Welsh baronial Gothic university building of 1872 is being restored for future University and community use. The Council has invested in improving the public realm around the railway station (now a J.D. Wetherspoons with no distinctive identity as a terminus), moving taxis and parking from the front and replacing it with quality surfaces.
There are many open spaces in the town, but the proximity to beautiful and accessible countryside provides many other opportunities. Many artists live in the surrounding area and in August 2014 there was an extensive art trail with open studios. It is also used for major cycling events and its local football club is upgrading its pitch and discussing a joint housing/stand project with a housing association.