Watch Watchet! Going local to level up

By Dr Ian Scott, Director, Grand Challenges & Cross-Disciplinary Development

East Quay (photo credit: Mark Anstey, EWA)

COVID-19 has increased the urgency for a comprehensive, large-scale plan to level up the UK economy. But what does this mean for rural areas and small coastal towns around the UK, remote from Britain’s cities?

October 2020 saw the publication of Lord Kerslake’s UK 2070 Commission plan setting out the priorities for action over the next ten years, “which unlocks capacity and delivers action at scale through local democratic leadership. We are calling on the Government to … Go Big — Go Local”.

Going local is what energises and motivates Jessica Prendergrast and her four fellow directors of the Onion Collective (OC), a community interest company which started in 2013 in Watchet, a small town on West Somerset’s Bristol channel coastline. In early August, I met with Jess for a socially-distanced coffee at a harbour-side café, just a few metres from the OC’s offices. My first encounter with the Onions, as the OC’s directors call themselves, was back in January. At that time I was curious to know more about their community-revitalisation plan, and what difference it was making in a small town at risk of post-industrial decline, since the loss of its paper mill in 2015, the year that I made my home in nearby Minehead.

The OC had provided the stimulus for two major local economic development projects: East Quay, a community, culture and enterprise development, currently in construction and due to open its doors in the summer 2021; and an ‘industry for Watchet’ initiative, building a bio-manufacturing demonstration facility on the site of a paper mill that had been the town’s major employer until its closure in 2015.

Meeting an Onion again four months after the UK went into lockdown, I wanted to find out how the OC’s plan had been affected by the pandemic. Jess told me that since the beginning of lockdown, the OC had strengthened its connections with the local community and businesses. Activity was picking up in the East Quay development (marina and arts and culture hub) and at the mushroom factory initiative after both had stopped for 8 to 10 weeks. My visit to Watchet was also motivated by a decision we had made in the GC programme to focus, in our 2020–21 academic year activities, on the significance of Place.

Places’, as one of the five foundations of the Government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy, promotes prosperous communities across the UK. But the narrative is based on an ever-stronger push for growth — that’s to say more of the same, based on an economic system that values money and wealth over community strengthening and development. Jess fears that the focus of the Industrial Strategy favours big business and major population centres, neglecting people and communities on the UK’s coastal margins like hers.

A key impetus for the Strategy was the need to improve the economic underperformance, against the national average, of many of the UK’s cities outside the capital, particularly those of the post-industrial north of England. But is this focus on the former heavy industry hub cities of England’s imperial past a flawed proposition? Jess considered that the UK Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda only applied to the major urban conurbations. The South West of England has always been ignored by government. With small exceptions such as Bristol and Exeter, many parts of the region are in just as bad a state socially and economically as the ‘left-behind’ places of the North.

The devolution agenda in the UK only refers to cities/metropolitan regions. Listening to Jess, I found myself wondering whether local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are not a particularly democratic facet of improved devolution; business people decide on the distribution of funds, and there’s no move to empower community-based organisations.

Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, is now focused on producing a revised Industrial Strategy this autumn, partly because of the impact of COVID-19. He should take the opportunity to make the strategy inclusive of the needs and potential of other ‘underperforming’ settings across the UK: not just England’s northern cities, but small provincial and coastal towns like Watchet.

In his Level up Industry Report (February 2020), Lord Bilimora, chairman of the Manufacturing Commission, encouraged authorities to focus the debate around regional manufacturing on “the realities of the role…of the communities and regional economies in which it exists”, and less on “broadly abstract” discussions concerning the industry’s purely economic value to society. I hope Sharma takes note. The love of place and community cohesion in small towns like Watchet are surely indispensable characteristics of a successful landscape of economic vitality.

In late July, the OC was awarded funding from the National Lottery ‘Emerging Futures’ call, which supports communities to consider how they can start the transition from the immediate COVID crisis, towards recovery and renewal. This initiative clearly recognises the OC’s special qualities as an exemplar community-based organisation doing stuff on the ground and systems thinking at the same time. COVID is an opportunity for systems change — but that won’t happen if the Government’s only substantive policy response is to throw money at industrial growth.

We are all enjoined to ‘build back better’ in a concerted effort to recover from the economic and societal damage that the pandemic has caused. Having met Jess and seeing what she and her wonderful colleagues in Watchet are striving for, my view is that a better and more transformative call to arms would be ‘build forward better!’. UK citizens should not be promised a return to the status quo, but innovation and action to ensure a fairer, greener and more sustainable world. Only on that basis can inclusive wealth and wellbeing be achieved.

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More about the author

Dr Ian Scott is Director, Grand Challenges & Cross-Disciplinary Development at the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research) at UCL.

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