I am exhausted and invigorated.
Georgie and I have just returned from two days at the Locality Convention in Manchester, which is an annual meeting of people from all over the country who are working to build stronger communities from the bottom up, whether by taking on an old town hall, setting up a community solar farm or running a community-led pub.
I left, as I always do from such things, feeling a combination of inspired and inadequate. There is always so much more we could be doing…if we had more time, more money to spend, more staff, more support from the powers that be.
To me, however hard, aiming high is critical. Having high expectations is tough, but it is necessary. We need ambition and aspiration for our communities—we need to strive to create the best versions we can of ourselves, and the places we love. To do otherwise is a waste of energy.
In Watchet, this means that we need to reject the notion that our fate is sealed. When the Paper Mill closed at the end of 2015, it was devastating for the town. The Mill had made paper here for more than 250 years—a quarter of a millennia—in so doing it had defined the history and identity of this place as a gritty, hard-working, manufacturing town, often in contrast to the touristy seaside places along our coastline, or the pretty villages in land. I have no doubt that tourism is a crucial industry for the town—supporting it is exactly why we have invested in the Boat Museum and Visitor Centre. It is also why a large part of the focus for East Quay development (planning permission to be submitted imminently) is on cultural regeneration—explicitly to attract more people to our town, who will, bluntly, spend more money. But, I also believe, that tourism is not enough.
Watchet should aim high. We should refuse to accept the often (not always but often) low-paid, low-skilled, seasonal fate that has befallen so many places that have lost their defining industry—whether that was coal-mining, tin-mining, steel production, fishing or papermaking. We may have lost the Paper Mill but we have not yet lost the skills or spirit of endeavour, industry and enterprise that it created in this town. This is an asset to be used, now, before it is too late.
But it is also not just about jobs for their own sake. Yes, we need to replace those jobs that were lost, and yes we need to replace them with skilled, technical jobs that have prospects for learning, advancement, promotion—jobs that will help our young people to move on and up in the world. But we also need to recognise that it is not just the jobs that we lost when the Mill closed. What came across most strongly through the Wansbrough heritage project, was that the most important thing about Wansbrough was that it had a social impact as well as an economic one. As in other places with one defining industrial employer, the Mill acted like community glue—it didn’t just pay wages, it created a community, it made friendships, it offered support, it built a ‘family’.
This is what we must replicate. Watchet has an incredible spirit of what I call ‘self-reliance by neglect’—no-one’s going to help us so we must help ourselves.
In that spirit, we at Onion, refuse to accept that we cannot identify a new ‘industry for Watchet’ that is fit for the 21st century, that builds on the skills we still have here, the manufacturing heritage, the assets of the town (people, knowledge, skills, geography) but that is founded in and working for the community.
Onion Collective is embarking on a new project, funded by The Fore Trust to do just that—to figure out what should be the industry that defines this place for the next quarter millennia. Our ambition is high. We want to identify it, business plan it, fund it and open it before it is too late. There’s plenty of space on the Mill site for a new industry and hundreds of good jobs with a decent income.
We don’t know yet what this industry will be. But we will not settle or ‘start small’—something we were recently advised at the Heart of the SW LEP conference. There, a delegate from a SW chamber of trade asked us ‘if we had thought about making cakes?’. Is it any wonder that SME productivity is the lowest in the country if that is what our ‘business leaders’ think should be the extent of ambition for people in West Somerset? So, no, thanks, but we will not make ‘cakes’ the industry for Watchet. Watchet can do better.
We are talking to everyone we can about possibilities—from nuclear procurement to robotics experts. We are exploring what we have—skills, sea (mud), wind, land—and what we don’t—decent roads, a university, innovation labs. We are considering all kinds of industries that might work—tidal power, insulation made from waste paper, kit houses, even insect farming! We will talk and research and learn and lead until we figure out what a new industry for Watchet—a new community model of industry—should be. Then we will build it. We will make sure that any profits go back into the next generation of community businesses and social enterprises, and we will keep on aspiring for more and better.
We will take all the help, advice, ideas and expertise we can get.
We will be holding open workshops to explore ideas in more detail, but until then if you have ideas and knowledge please do contact us at email@example.com or call on Tel: 01984 633496