Does your town still have a purpose?

In this guest post, Bob Gibson argues that we need to examine town’s evolution and purpose to prepare effectively for the future.

Coventry: successful evolution? Picture by Esther Simpson


In recent weeks there has been much debate and heartache about the difficulties hitting many town centres. The Portas Review, Action for Market Towns, a Parliamentary debate (alas attended by only about fifty of our elected representatives!) and others offer ideas to turn the tide against, what for many towns, is an increasing struggle for survival.

However, all seem to ignore two fundamental principles that have always determined the prosperity and future of any town, large or small. These two fundamental concepts are quite simply, purpose and evolution.

All towns and communities, wherever situated and whatever size, must have a sound reason for being. They must retain some form of purpose to remain vibrant.

Early towns were often founded around ecclesiastical sites or became administrative centres; others were key bridging points on rivers or had roots dating back to their suitability as defensive sites.  The industrial revolution created a new raft of towns – the Lancashire cotton towns grew at amazing speed in the 19th century; many, such as Blackburn or Oldham now struggle, as the cotton industry is now more prominent in museum sets than reality.

Some towns had an even more narrowly defined purpose. In the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood built his new town on the estuary of the River Wyre to create a rail-sea interchange point to accelerate the journey time between London and Glasgow. His vision collapsed within a decade as the railway conquered Shap fells and left Fleetwood to its own salvation and its founder in bankruptcy. Fleetwood’s history has been a ‘boom and bust’ scenario ever since, notwithstanding its once huge fishing industry that fell victim to the Icelandic cod wars of the 1970s.

A series of tables within W.G.Hoskins Local History in England reveals a pecking order of English provincial towns over several centuries. Hoskins suggests Norwich was the most important provincial town in both Tudor and Stuart eras. Whilst it may still retain some regional importance, it does not make the ‘top thirty’ in 2012. The relative importance of places such as Kings Lynn, Boston, and Shrewsbury has also taken quite a hit from medieval times to the present day.

Yet Coventry has managed to remain in the ‘top twenty’ from at least the early 14th century. Coventry presents an admirable example of how places must continually adapt and reinvent themselves. Though its medieval importance declined, it later regained its status through firstly, silk, then watch-making, before the arrival of machine tools and car manufacturing in the 20th century; its 21st century prospects appear more linked to its two universities and cathedral.

Some towns are less fortunate. Only a few miles along the M69 from Coventry, Hinckley was a boom hosiery and knitwear town for much of the 20th century. Its staple industry declined rapidly in the 1980s, but Hinckley appears not to have managed the trick of finding a new purpose to reinvent itself. Once the second town in Leicestershire after Leicester itself, Hinckley’s deserted, pedestrianised Regent street, once the busy A47 thronged with local businesses, now underlines its current plight.

Many towns and villages proudly boast market charters dating back to medieval times. Often they were a mere five or six miles distant from each other; about the distance traders could walk to market with their wares. A passage from Daniel Defoe’s early 18th century survey of England cites four market towns in rural Leicestershire; Mount sorrel (sic), Loughborough, Melton Mowbray and Waltham-in-the Would (sic). Of these only two, Loughborough and Melton remain as market towns. Improved and mechanised transport has wiped out the smaller and presumably less successful markets.

History shows towns have always evolved; some prosper, some contract, some even fail. Many have been forced to find a new cause or purpose and re-invent themselves simply to survive. So, in turn, contemporary towns must adapt to fast-moving technological and social changes. They must recognise the concept of evolution and must have a clearly defined purpose. There is undoubtedly an element of Darwinism in urban survival, but a genuine understanding of the past may help to foresee and meet the needs of the future.

• A related article on footfall in town centres has been posted on the Revive Our Town Centres site.

Dr Bob Gibson