(by Julian Rose)

 Objective Designate a “rural development hub” in the County which would act as a model for integrated sustainable development at the local level and catalyst for rural development. Set in motion solutions for a number of key concerns as outlined in the 1999 Oxfordshire Farming Study.

Justifications Sustainable development is a very widely touted catchphrase used to justify almost any form of development which can be shown to ‘sustain itself’. It has been adopted by many agencies with an interest in the future of the countryside, enterprise and conservation, perhaps most notably SEEDA. Yet it lacks tangible examples and often obfuscates rather than clarifies. A clear sense of practical direction is therefore an urgent requirement for all those seeking motivated policy objectives for the rural economy in the South East and elsewhere.
Preamble to Project “Oxfordshire Pivots around Market Towns” (Sir Martin Wood?) This is an important observation – and holds a clue for successful remedial initiatives in the rural development strategy arena. It is instructive to start back at square one to see why.

Historically, the County Market Town was the axis around which trade in agricultural and artisan products turned. Their architectural design sets the market place at the centre (usually with the main church in proximity, to cater for both spiritual and material needs) and has access roads radiating out into the surrounding countryside, designed to facilitate the easy movement of people and goods.

The dynamic activities of the market place have declined steadily throughout the 20th Century as the boundaries of trade moved more and more into the global arena and the local resource base lost its significance. In the last decade or two there has been little more than token market place trading in these once bustling centres. They have in effect “died”. (Unless one believes that insurance companies, travel and estate agencies plus the odd tea room constitute a thriving town centre!) The majority of the population of the typical market town no longer finds local employment, nor do the majority of their daily purchases come from, or have any relation with, the resource base of their region.

All this could change, however, and it is my belief that now is the time to examine and embrace the potential centring around the rejuvenation of the market town and rural hinterland. Focussing on the creation of such a hub would:

    1. Counteract the debilitating effects of the current crisis in agriculture and its attendant knock-on effects on the rural economy
    2. Develop a rural model that can demonstrate sustainable development through a multidisciplinary approach covering social, economic and environmental criteria.
    3. Draw on government’s current sustainable indicator targets (including quality of life). These include significantly cutting back car and truck miles, CO2 emissions and commercial/household waste.

The project framework

“In the past, focus has centred mainly on improving labour productivity. In the future, greater emphasis will be needed on resource efficiency. We need to break the link between continued economic growth and increasing use of resources and environmental impacts” (Rt Hon John Prescott MP – Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions)

The project will centre on an existing market town (current preference, Faringdon), and will seek input from the Chamber of Commerce, Local Authority, the office of the Mayor, the private sector, Business Link and other local/County and regional agencies (SEEDA).

It is envisaged as a five year plan.

      Develop a local (undersupplied) market as opposed to global (oversupplied) market through forging closer links between locally productive farm land and the town’s requirement for primary, seasonal agricultural produce via markets, distribution outlets, existing shops, restaurants and public authority/school canteens.
    2. ENERGY.
      Develop a ‘renewable energy’ contract with local woodland, biomass and alternative crop production enterprises to supply an increasing percentage of the energy requirements from the local sustainable resource base. Solar and wind energy may also be incorporated.
    3. FABRIC and FIBRE.
      Explore and exploit the potential for local renewable building/construction materials to be utilized in meeting demand of light industrial and other appropriate constructions.
    4. SOCIAL.
      Determine key quality of life indicators for local population. Develop ‘village appraisal’ models, affordable housing agenda, local job opportunities and rural transport networks. See also ARTS & EDUCATION.
    5. ARTS.
      Explore potential for revival of creative arts which can both complement and catalyse the overall project. Draw local youth into creative programmes.
      Tap into local education authority (and private sector) as key participants/partners of the evolving project. School would play a central role in assessing targets for local food and energy requirements of the market town.
      The underlying economic theme within the project is to view the market town as an ‘innovation hub’ and therefore a blend of dynamic and holistic entrepreneurial activity is envisaged which will stimulate new enterprise or (in some cases) revive existing businesses.
      Develop the technology for telecottage and advanced communications through embracing ‘the wired region’ initiative favoured by SEEDA. Apply this to an advanced marketing strategy for the enhancement of local/regional trading (see also 1,2,3,6and 7).

Julian Rose March 2000