Todmorden, West Yorkshire
Category: The Great Town Award
Date of visit: August 2016
Assessor: Michele Grant
1. The power of community activism
Using the simple idea of growing food on available land has spurned a volunteer movement largely driven by a green and community agenda, which has permeated the town in a very wide range of ways. It has created an energy and supported a strong self-reliance in the community that is prepared to positively challenge the accepted way to do things.
2. Engaging local people in designing and maintaining local spaces
The use of local volunteers to improve the quality of ignored public spaces demonstrates what is achievable – locally designed and erected interpretation panels, planting and street decoration including knitted bollard covers!
3. Encouraging creativity and small businesses to collaborate and flourish
Incredible Edible scheme has encouraged local creativity and attracted people to start businesses in the town, especially related to sustainable and green agenda.
Todmorden is a town at the head of the narrow Upper Calder Valley on the borders between Lancashire and Yorkshire with the town’ s heritage rooted in both counties. Walsden Water, a tributary of the River Calder runs through the town, which suffered from severe flooding in 2015. There is a town population of around 15,000.
The town’ s industrial heritage is in the cotton and woollen industries and much of the local architecture reflects that with an impressive Town Hall, mill buildings and Victorian cottages built into the sides of the hill with steep narrow streets leading up from the town centre.
The town is relatively remote from main road routes, though benefits from good sub-regional rail connections. Local people feel ‘ abandoned’ and remote from the conventional local authority support infrastructure. Remoteness has bred a resilience and independent spirit. There is a community-led approach to delivering change through small interventions.
Todmorden is arguably over-shadowed by its more famous neighbour Hebden Bridge, though Todmorden like its neighbour, also has a creative and alternative community. Some of the community have set up businesses in the old disused industrial buildings and pockets of land on the edge of the town. That local entrepreneurism has impacted on the look and feel of the place, generated a degree of self-sufficiency and an approach to community support that is highly visible in the public realm.
Local people have used its concept of ‘ incredible edible’ as a focus for much of the community-led work including raised vegetable beds located across the town in unused and previously unloved spaces for residents to harvest, all planted and managed by volunteers. Nature’ s harvest has become the theme for the town and reflected in the types of SMEs based there, from alternative therapies to eco-products including cutting-edge innovation in hay built houses. ‘ Made in Tod’ is a proud part of the town’ s independence and evolution from its industrial past. Incredible Edible has inspired the Apothecary Garden at the new health centre, has resulted in school and learning programmes including through the AquaGarden (demonstrating the principles of aqua gardening and hydroponics) and food banks for the homeless (community run on a no questions asked basis).
The motto of the town is kindness – ask forgiveness not seek permission – and that underpins a caring can-do approach. Todmorden is community activism at its best and most extensive. The town attracts awards and publicity as well as visitors and groups and associations keen to understand how the model works and how it can be adapted to their place. The success of the “Incredible Edible” has now been taken up by other towns across the country and become a movement.
The physical fabric of the town and its Victorian landscape has largely been retained with plenty of examples of churches, halls and industrial buildings being repurposed for commercial and community uses. There are thriving markets and numerous independent shops. There is a strong craft-led SME community. Traditional houses are predominantly small and Todmorden has not seen the surge in house prices or housing development experienced in many parts of the country. This makes the town affordable to many.
Todmorden has a strong community leader but there is a sense that the volume and strength of volunteer and community work is now sufficient to be self-sustaining.
A community approach inevitably has limitations on what it can achieve. Todmorden has undoubtedly stretched community achievement to the limits of its abilities with remarkable results. But some of the big issues have yet to be addressed such as heavy and intrusive through traffic in the town centre, and longer term solutions to flooding issues (which require an area based approach bringing together a wide range of partners). There appears to be no big picture of where the town wants to go. Reliance on people and personalities results in projects following what local people want to do, which while laudable and largely successful, inevitably has a downside. We did see some examples of areas for potential intervention that have been overlooked in favour of other projects.
Todmorden is, nonetheless, an outstanding example of what a community based initiative, energy and enthusiasm can achieve.