We had lived in Diss, Norfolk, for 8 happy years. Diss, an historical market town, met most of our expectations in providing a safe environment, and a range of quality local shops and cafes. My young family truly prospered within a relatively small community; we were able to walk to the marketplace for most of our shopping and social needs* (Summer morning strolls down Mount Street to the market with my family remain very fond memories). When I needed to move house due to work commitments we knew we wanted to live in another market town, somewhere we might again enjoy the best values of community, localism and heritage.
Mine is not a vision of yesterday, it is about taking the essence of what we love of our heritage and applying what we know and our current resources and technology to make it better. Do you remember how fruit and veg shops used to display, and how such a simple thing seemed to be a highlight? I can still recall running my hand of the fake grass along the traders stalls, and the amazing smells and sights of an authentic outdoor market. I would encourage the shops and cafes to “melt” over the pavements, people being able to shop and enjoy an expanded market without worries of vehicle access. I was particularly taken looking at with photos of Wisbech market past, and without being overly sentimental, there is again an opportunity to sell and enjoy shopping this way…and we could begin by making market days special. Let’s put an end to a mediocre market limping along for 6 days a week, let’s have dedicated days but more importantly a reason to get excited by what will be on offer.
The supermarkets have sought to “steal” our High Streets from us using the very same memories and desires. They try, openly, to recreate the architecture and feel of towns and market places and for decades we have been seduced. We are at the point where many High Streets are beaten, and lots of long established markets are either gone or a sad parody of what they once were. However, we can and must challenge this – it starts with traders provider a product we want, councils ensuring the environment and structures are in place, and customers spending their money locally. But as citizens we have a role in all of this; electing politicians who support and are active, telling shops and traders what they want to buy and how, and to start spending some money NOW to help make things happen.
I would like to see more art and creativity in the town centre. There have been a couple of events, as well as special “seasonals” put on, if nothing else it shows there is an appetite for culture we just need to provide some resources and lot’s of opportunities to make it a feature. To be successful we need to develop an ongoing strategy in delivery and promotion of a unique identity. Let us construct a bandstand or a similar focus for the marketplace. There has been some discussion of bringing back the water fountain, we certainly would benefit for an icon for the town to rally around. The best I have seen of the town have been during the community celebrating together. It would certainly add decorum to the festivals, certainly more dignified for Mayor to start Christmas lights than the back of a lorry. If the bureaucrats and “nay sayers” get sniffy we can of course consider something which might be assembled and removed but this project is about long-term and genuine community building of which the focus and public face will be events. There are a multitude of interest groups who could contribute more publicly, and we certainly do not make enough of the tremendous talent of the local youth.
We live in the eye of food growing and production. I cannot accept there is no appetite or interest from the local producers for a regular Farmers Market. Perhaps it is a case of build a venue and they will come – and I appreciate there must be a return on any investment but if this cannot be done by the Town Council what good do they serve? You should have noticed there is a wealth of art and craft talent throughout the area. Again, there are many small markets and events but nothing regular or large within the centre of our town. For me this is something which does reflect our national and local identity, we should be actively promoting the arts and values of the English folk tradition – perhaps for it’s commercial value to tourism alone.
Unless you have a diverse and popular market the provision of a 7-day general market is not viable, and in my mind is counter-productive. Stalls which are present for several days a week provide unfair competition to independent traders in particular. It is critical that a genuine partnership between market traders and local independent shops is established to improve communication, and help promote a single strategy for the town for the benefit of all. But also “fixed” traders provide disincentive from casual visitors at the lack of choice provided. Markets traditionally provided good value but also great community events too. Unless you can provide for both of these requirements then you will surely fail too. We should take advantage of what we have locally both in terms of produce but also our people. Let us promote more “themed” and innovative events including continental markets, and perhaps let’s get a more authentic taste of what Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have to offer opportunity. Our friends and neighbours from Eastern Europe are now part of the town’s living heritage, we must celebrate this and help restore a sense of a single united community. The marketplace needs to be lifted up and celebrated not pitied or berated, it should be the focus of the town’s pride.
It is alleged that there have been a number of market improvement schemes in recent years, but most people would argue there is little to boast about. Much of what has been done has been poorly delivered – including the need to change vehicle routing – but also ideas have been limited in scope. To even suggest that spending public money on new Christmas lights in the absence of a business plan or wider strategy was pure pantomime and worst excesses of short-sighted local politics. The first step should be to look at what other towns and cities have done – what works well and adapt it for our own needs. For example the market has to look attractive – I do like what Norwich city have done with the stalls but there is a cost involved – be warned though that without custom there is no future. Business, councils and residents must work together in achieving this goal. I am spellbound that local Conservative continue to encourage and promote the development and expansion of supermarkets through the Fens. It is incredulous that Conservative Town Council then oppose spending money improving the marketplace. It is for business to make our town a success but council should provide infrastructure and political leadership to provide confidence and direction.
There is no shortage of venues in our town, our heritage buildings often cited as a great asset. Sadly, they have been neglected this past decade and many are in poor if not ruinous repair. It is a total failure of local politics and many will be incredulous at the apparent lack of concern and activity by English Heritage and other bodies. In the past year concerns have been heightened and it is said, if not completely believed, that matters are to be addressed. If this is the case then there should be a multitude of opportunities for arts and creative venues but as importantly community projects, social enterprise and “start up” businesses – this could prove to be the catalyst for real change in the future direction of our town.
A particular concern for me is the total absence of any night time economy in the town. There is no co-ordination between businesses, and after 6pm each evening all year round the town centre is completely empty of people. We should have cafes, restaurants and events – including “pop ups” all year round. That we are currently bereft of rail links, and road links are poor, might be the historical reason why we have not had big name events and acts in the town but that can change. Many businesses, clubs and societies put on successful entertainment events all through the seasons – it is only the absence of capital investment and political interest – that has held us back. We need infrastructure, we need the rail, road and bus links but really we need civil leadership. Absolutely right, we cannot turn the clock back and re-create the idealised High Streets of the past but we can build something new which brings reward to independent businesses and benefit to the local community.
We have the town created by the politicians who have been elected, and shaped by the way we have spent our money. If there is any desire to change things we must use the remaining independent businesses (who do work hard and provide good service) and use our votes to support policies not personalities. Tomorrow we can volunteer and enjoy those amazing community events which take place, above all else speak up for what we want to see. We all have a part to play.
* Tesco arrived in Diss a couple of years before we moved and made a significant impact – drawing notably more traffic into the town but also shortening footfall in the marketplace.