Market Towns: Harnessing the Power of the Collective

Smaller towns and High Streets can harness the Power of the Collective by working together; and we do need to work together.  The years since the Millennium have been described as a period of “creative destruction” as old ways of doing this change radically and at a pace never seen before.  When I was CEO at Action for Market Towns the government, through the then Countryside Agency, supported communities in order to set up local groups in smaller locations.

By having access to advice and support, communities have the chance to look at their own business and make adjustments to win more custom.  You can have the best business in town, but if the environment in which they trade and fail to adapt then all will be held back.  The Town Team project has a great legacy in some locations.  No change is not an option.

In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Just a few years later, their business model disappeared and they were bankrupt. Did you think, in 1998, that 3 years later you would never take pictures on paper film again?  Who saw that coming?  Not me.

The Power of the Collective is helping businesses in a given area understand how, by working together, they can “join up the dots” and create a new picture of the future and influence the development not just of their business but also their area.  The key question is who fulfils that role?  Market towns are usually too small to support a BID and the TCM role in local authorities is now a rarity.

Having said that, with a small intervention change is possible.  The term ‘culture’ means different things to different people. In this context, for me, it means having shared values that make up the ‘way of life’ of any business community.  Those in business, especially independent businesses, will have much more in common than they might realise.  But there will be different roles, knowledge and skills and other things that each can share with others.

Running a series of workshops in market town for Warwickshire County Council earlier this year we showed that businesses are willing to collaborate for the common good.

Each location had two workshops.  In the first session, I look at the current state of retail in the UK and focussed around research from Experian commissioned by the ATCM, which identified five key consumer trends that characterise certain consumer behaviours in light of the economy, demographic change, and changing technology.  We don’t have a crystal ball but we’re likely to see an increase in certain characteristics and the workshops are focused around how each location could respond to those they felt were most important in their location. These will be more or less prevalent in different town centres – the key is how to react to these.

A few weeks later we gathered again with introduction to Action Planning and Identity, which means thinking about how you currently appear to the outside world as a community; what “personality” does the place have?

The effectiveness of active and engaged businesses working collaboratively can be really powerful; understanding that you are not on your own.  In a BID, the businesses weigh up the cost v benefit of what’s being offered and, if they like it, they vote to pay the levy to effectively buy in the service.  For small towns or suburban areas that’s often not an option.

First Impressions

Town were paired after Workshop 1 and asked to undertake a structured visit to a neighbouring location.  This is because communities and their residents often have difficulty in developing an objective assessment of their strengths, limitations and opportunities, due to over familiarisation, fear of offending someone and the diversity of local perspectives.

The First Impressions Exercise provides a simple and inexpensive mechanism to gain valuable feedback and insights from a neutral source with no local vested interests. It is a simple tool to provide feedback to a community from a “first time” visitor.

 Action Plans

While we did not write Action Plans, we did consider the types of things that

should be included.  The participants were asked to use the GROW model, below, in thinking about where they currently are, and where they want to be; to try and articulate a vision for their location.

At the Options stage it was explained that it is important to differentiate between what is achievable as well as desirable.  A technique to help with this was introduced: Ease v Impact for project ideas.

Finally, locations were asked to identify at least one “Quick Win”; the one thing that they are going to take forward to the immediate future in order to start to bring the community along with them.

At the end of the second workshop each location has identified “Areas for Attention” that come into the “Get on With It” category as those that will have the greatest impact.

Time will tell as to which locations will really embrace the Power of the Collective for positive change.

Martin Blackwell

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