How the New Mills Community Conversation could bring real changes to the town
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 June 2020
Andrew Griffiths goes in search of the future and finds some answers in his local town hall
It was one of those moments when you catch yourself wondering how on earth you got yourself into a situation. This happened to me while sitting in a circle of 80 or more people in the function room of New Mills Town Hall, just on the Derbyshire side of the Derbyshire – Cheshire border, days before the UK went into lockdown.
A charismatic man sporting a hipster beard who had been prowling the centre of the circle skilfully facilitating the conversation was now urging us to participate in a group meditation. Some, who were presumably more used to practicing meditation than others, took this in their stride. Others, and I confess I was one, shuffled our feet awkwardly but then did our best to look like we were meditating because we didn’t want to stand out. Was I doing it right, I worried? What exactly should one look like when meditating?
Then a small child cried and shouted for their dad but it didn’t matter, we all smiled indulgently and laughed quietly out loud because we were that kind of crowd.
I was taking my place in the circle because I had responded to an invitation to attend a New Mills Community Conversation as a resident of the town.
‘What would we like New Mills to be like in the future? How will it look, sound and feel?’ read the invitation. ‘This is our chance to reimagine our town and help create a positive vision for us all.’ I was intrigued.
This ‘community conversation’ was the next step along from the declaration of a climate emergency by New Mills Town Council in 2019. It was a day-long event organised by the Council in partnership with Transition New Mills, the local incarnation of an international movement whose purpose is to help find ways for communities to ‘reimagine their world’ and move towards a low carbon, post fossil fuel future while having a bit of fun on the way. The intention was to give some substance to what can often seem the hollow gesture of ‘declaring a climate emergency’.
The day took the form of brief talks in the morning from local ‘provocateurs’ on such subjects as the future of the high street, environment and transport while in the afternoon we split into group discussions, considering such topics as ‘rewilding’ in more depth. The day was surprisingly moving as people grappled to articulate their hopes – and fears – for the future of the town, living under the looming ‘existential threat’ (as it is often described) of climate change.
The man with the hipster beard in the centre of it all was sometime musician, sometime local government employee, and full time local provocateur for transition activism, Phil Frodsham and I spoke to him afterwards.
‘There was a lot of emotion during the day, we were doing things quite differently,’ says Phil. ‘We were concerned before we started that we would go too far and we couldn’t take people with us. We did an extended meditation, with eighty people, in New Mills!’
The ‘town conversation’ was a variant of the ‘citizen assembly’ concept that is proving effective at resolving tricky social problems from abortion in Ireland, to social care in England. Something similar to the New Mills conversation has been held by Hope Valley Climate Action a few stops up the rail line towards Sheffield.
Usually, the representative group of citizens in an assembly are selected at random, but for the New Mills Town Conversation, those invited were carefully chosen because they were ‘heads of networks’. So they hoped their message would propagate throughout the town.
It was also designed in consultation with the local council, a role Phil sees now largely as ‘to facilitate other community groups’.
‘Every single one of these councillors who got into this did so because they wanted to make positive changes in their community,’ says Phil. ‘It was about getting more people to get involved with the democratic process of their town.’
‘It doesn’t matter what their party politics are, we never mentioned party politics at any point. This goes beyond party politics I think; that can get in the way of what we are trying to do.’ he says.
The reason for the existence of the Transition movement, and the background to the Town Conversation, has been well rehearsed in the media: we have until 2030 to stay at or below the 1.5C temperature rise if we are to significantly reduce the risks of severe droughts and floods that will affect hundreds of millions of people’s lives. In terms of biodiversity, a 2019 United Nations report revealed that up to a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades if we fail to act.
If we are to slow – let alone reverse – these trends, we are going to have to make drastic changes to the way we live and Phil believes that, paradoxically, disasters that have beset the area offer a glimmer of hope for a way forward. He cites the Toddbrook Reservoir incident, where for one week the dam wall threatened to breach and flood the valley, and the tremendous response of the local communities which would have been devastated.
As so often seems to be the case, extremes and adversity can bring out the best in people, and people tend to make the best of things. The bridges over the River Goyt in New Mills were shut off, effectively sealing off the town, but ‘I think that was the best time we’ve had in New Mills for decades!’ Phil tells me. ‘We could stop on the road and people could talk and we had time for each other. Then five days later it was gone and things were back to normal.’
Post Covid-19 there will be no such thing as normal. Our lives have changed profoundly. As I write we are still in lockdown, but we are getting restless. Boris Johnson is back at work having recovered from his own infection with the virus, but while there has been a partial loosening of lockdown, people’s movements remain restricted. Most work, if happening at all, is still happening from home. Much of the economy is in a state of suspended animation. But as we have already seen, extremes of adversity can bring out the best in people.
Esther Morrison runs the High Peak Food Hub which holds evening events in New Mills for local, artisan food producers at bar and cafe The Butterfly House – or she did until Covid-19 struck. Esther’s speciality is the relationship between food, place and community, and she was one of the ‘provocateurs’ at the Town Conversation.
‘I’ve seen so many changes in how people treat their local food suppliers,’ says Esther of the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘I’ve spoken to a number of local suppliers who have either turned to delivery completely, or added many new customers to what they’ve had before. I think it is going to make a big difference for a long time. Part of that is because people are becoming closer as a community, and they are becoming more aware of people who do ‘good things’.’
A Yougov Poll commissioned by the RSA and conducted mid-lockdown revealed that only nine per cent of people wanted a return to ‘normal’ after the crisis. 85 per cent wanted at least some of the personal or social changes they had experienced to continue, with food and cleaner air high on the list of good things to keep.
‘People are eating together as families and that is changing what people eat and how they eat,’ says Esther.
‘People are making massive changes to their lifestyles, some of them are going to stick because they like them. Some of them won’t because they don’t like them. But one of the things that is going to stick for longer, because restaurants and bars and pubs can’t open, is focusing on food.’
The trend has been towards eating more locally produced food, which not only affects how food is consumed, but how it is produced, prepared, grown, reared, packaged, sold and distributed too.
It is interesting to cast an eye to the future and apply the concept to the whole county – and that is what Derbyshire Life is going to do with a series of articles looking at what ground-level initiatives are already underway that may shape what life will be like in Derbyshire in 2030 if we are going to have a chance of making climate and biodiversity goals.
These are big challenges ahead for our local communities, not least picking up the pieces of a broken economy as we emerge from the pandemic, but there is much good that can come from striving to meet them. But to finish with a sobering thought: Carbon Brief, the climate and energy analysis website, in what they acknowledge is a rough and ready calculation, estimates the Covid-19 pandemic could result in the largest ever global annual fall in carbon emissions – 5.5% of 2019 levels. But if we are to meet the 1.5C target for 2030 we will need to cut emissions by ‘some 7.6% every year this decade’.
Now there is something to meditate on.