Category: The Great Town Award 2011
Assessor: Philip Jackson / Willie Miller
Date of Visit: 2010
2. Stroud has developed an alternative reputation through its wide variety of community interest groups, from artists to writers, from organic food producers to health food suppliers, from environmentalists to conservationists, from community land trusts to co-housing groups
3. The town has had to, and continues to, reinvent itself through major cultural, economic and social changes, adapting itself from an agricultural wool-orientated ‘Shambles’, to an important industrialised textile centre, to a progressive eco-focused town. It is a forward thinking town, but draws its inspiration from the past
4. Using the LSP, public, private, voluntary and community groups who have a diverse wealth of local knowledge and expertise are able to improve the quality of life for local people by encouraging effective partnership between those people who can directly and indirectly bring about change
5. There is a genuine common interest in getting things done – the ‘Stroud way’ – that allows the town and its citizens to originate ideas and proposals for projects that would benefit the town and find a way to implement them
Stroud has a population of around 32,000 and is the largest town in this category. Situated below the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills at the meeting point of the Five Valleys, the town is noted for its steep streets and cafe culture. The Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty surrounds the town, and the Cotswold Way path passes by it to the west.
Although not formally part of the town, the parishes of Rodborough and Cainscross lie adjacent to Stroud and are often considered part of it. Stroud acts as a centre for surrounding villages and small market towns including and this catchment is estimated to be around 47,000 people.
Stroud is known for its involvement in the Industrial Revolution. It was a cloth town; woolen mills were powered by the small rivers which surge through the five valleys, and supplied by Cotswold sheep grazed on the hills above. Particularly noteworthy was the production of military uniforms in the colour Stroudwater Scarlet. The area was made home by a sizable Huguenot community in the 17th century, fleeing persecution in Catholic France, followed by a significant Jewish presence in the 19th century, linked to the tailoring and cloth industries. Stroud was an industrial and trading location in the nineteenth century, and so needed transport links. It first had a canal network in the form of the Stroudwater Navigation and the Thames & Severn Canal, both of which survived until the early 20th century. Later, Stroud was connected to London and the south west by railway. The station was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is a relatively easy commute to London at one hour forty minutes.
Stroud was the first town that the assessment team visited and it immediately set a high standard. We had a brief but comprehensive tour of the town and its environs in a 1970s restored bus and the integration of the town in the landscape was remarkable. This is also one of the first impressions of the town when arriving by train – the station platform becomes a sort of promenade from which different elements of the town and its landscape can be viewed. As a first time visitor though, the town was not particularly easy to understand – the centre was clear but other areas were less obvious in the way that they inter-related. The town is also ‘functional rather than picturesque’ to quote Carole Garfield, Chair of the Chamber of Commerce and Trade.
One of the first projects we visited was a co-housing project which was remarkable in many ways – especially remarkable in that the UK hadn’t seen more of these developed. This was also one of the many examples we saw of the ‘Stroud way’ – a certain mindset that just gets things done in the face of either opposition or indifference. This approach is manifest across a wide range of agencies and organisations and it seemed at times that the Stroud communities were actively involved in almost every aspect of the town and could overcome most problems and ensure the provision of a many facilities which seem to be unachievable for other settlements. The Proud to be Stroud label seemed to be completely justified and there was an obvious sense of civic pride throughout the town.
On the face of it, the depth and breadth of community organisations in Stroud seems to be the very embodiment of the current government’s aspirations to the Big Society – except for the fact that Stroud started doing things for itself years ago – so perhaps Stroud is the model for the Big Society. Although we were made aware of the good work of the three levels of Councils in Stroud and other very active public sector organisations it nevertheless seemed to the assessment team that this was a town in which it was possible for individuals in the community to originate ideas and proposals for projects that would benefit the town and find a way to implement them – indeed the roles of the Councils seemed secondary at times to the work of community representatives. At the same time, there was no evidence of stress or conflict between them – there seemed to be a genuine common interest in getting things done.
So there were many remarkable achievements to note in the town – its history, its apparent ability to organise festivals, programme activities in the town’s streets and spaces, the laying on of evening bus services to take young people to the cinema and clubs, the restoration of the canal, the various Trusts, Farmers’ Market, Made in Stroud initiatives, artist studios and support for truly local shops, an International Textile Festival and support for local business.
At the same time, there are some issues about the quality of the town centre public realm and also the standard of some new developments in the town. The town centre was the subject of a public realm project in the 1980s which now looks very tired but there is a new Public Realm Strategy which will rework some of the town centre streets and spaces and also deal with traffic issues through shared surfaces. Larger developments include a cinema and supermarket developments which are on the edge of the traditional core and these have not been handled in a particularly sensitive manner. Nevertheless, their actual impact on the overall perception of the town is relatively small.