Totnes is the mothership of Transition. It stands alongside a small number of pioneering towns and cities in Britain where Transition has been extraordinarily successful. We view their success with a certain amount of awe & (indeed) envy. Then, one day, a coffee shop came along and some folk in Totnes decided they didn’t want it there.
Totnes is a town on the vanguard of building a sustainable society. It was the experiment at its ‘bleeding-edge’. When I met Rob Hopkins in 2010 I even used Totnes as a benchmark by which to gauge how popular Transition is within a town’s population. But then a “NoToCosta” campaign started in Totnes to reject an application by Costa Coffee to start up there. I thought nothing much of it at the time as I assumed the campaign was incidental to Transition Town Totnes (TTT). It seemed that this wasn’t quite true. Most people in Totnes couldn’t quite see where one ended and the other began. And therein lies the problem.
Transition Towns are not campaign groups. In the original Transition Handbook dating back to 2008 Rob carefully explained how Transition was mostly not about campaigning negatively against things – no, it was about what it positively stood for. It was one of the key principles that proved so attractive to me. As someone with no background nor interest in environmentalism this was key. Transition was not a dogma – it was an experiment in how communities could take control of their future to build lasting wellbeing. My discomfort with Transition in the years since then have all stemmed from watching Transitioners depart from that definition of “Transition”.
I have written several blogs over the years in which I stressed that Transition needed to be an experiment that swept up the entire population with a cultural change that became the new normal. It must never become an empty ideology lest it attract a backlash. Their would be no little red books, no evangelical preaching on the High Street – no, we were here to help. If people wanted Costa then they could have Costa. Our role would be to suggest alternatives to Costa. We should be in a position to open small independent coffee shops like our beloved Local Roots. But there should be no cartoon bad guys. As I wrote in my last blog about Hobbycraft – in a town where the hobby shops had mostly closed down we can welcome a large shop if it moves us in the right direction. Context is everything and we should choose wisely.
Has Transition Town Totnes chosen wisely? They certainly won the battle. Costa chose not to open the shop. But did they win the war? What happened was entirely predictable to me but seems to have puzzled TTT. A local man in Totnes started the “Take Back Totnes” campaign with a complaint that TTT had undue influence over the local democratic process. Other voices were being excluded. It let forth a flood of similar complaints from locals. We followed the debate via the one news outlet that was following it (or ‘stoking-it-up’, depending on your point of view) – Totnes FM. The frustrations revealed there were illuminating. Suddenly even people who would otherwise be sympathetic to sustainable development spoke up about their dislike of TTT.
What had gone wrong? Well you can read the story for yourself at www.totnesfm.co.uk/#/takebacktotnes-claims-sign-win/4570417337 but we noted a few pertinent comments there, that we repeat here, by way of illustration:
“There are 29,000 who live in and around Totnes, so 5,700 signatures on a petition against Costa Coffee do not represent a majority of people here. Beside, TTT even admits a third of those signatures were from people outside the area.”
So – first complaint – the Costa decision did not represent what most people wanted. (Apparently only between 12% and 25% of those signatures turned out to be by genuine townsfolk.)
“yes, I found the TT campaign bullying, in the sense that I felt intimidated if I did not agree with them, and was a little bit scared that if I was seen entering the new Costa I might be subject to abuse of some kind. I know many people who felt the same.”
Second complaint – people felt bullied by TTT (as incredible as that may sound).
“All these campaigns have made Totnes look awful! We look like snobs. I dread to think what people think of us, saying we are too good for Costa. To be honest now, it’s more like Costa is too good for Totnes, Costa would have made the town look brilliant. Totnes is getting full up of protestors, and I know for a fact the residents are getting fed up with it. These protestors are complaining about everything, if you don’t like something, then bugger off to a different town. Because the way Totnes is going on, no tourists will visit us, which means no money, no stores and no jobs. We need some bloody big chains to come in and get us out of this mess. Because as to be honest all these independent shops seem to be closing after 6 months of opening.”
Third complaint – TTT had made the town a laughing stock and that local economics were failing. For every anti-TTT comment there was another in its defence. The town was divided. The debate still rages and finally prompted a written response from TTT here: www.transitiontowntotnes.org/2012/11/response-to-david-parsley It is worthwhile starting at the bottom of that web page to see the complainant’s list of questions before reading the response. They only answer the questions obliquely by referring to their numerous good deeds. My gut feel? Being ‘good’ is not always enough. We must be open to the idea that other people do not think like us. TTT should not fall foul of “group-think”. Diversity matters.
TTT’s response to the criticisms has been right and proper. They want to sit down with everybody and absorb the complaints. This is the right step. I hope that Totnes can resolve this difficulty and once again become that shining light on the hill. One thing we can do in the Transition experiment is celebrate failure. We learn from failure. We hope that Totnes learns the right lesson from this and, by extension, Transitioners everywhere share in that learning. When they do, we will all be better off for it.
[Note that Totnes FM have ran several related stories in which they have cheekily lifted comments from the Transition Town High Wycombe Facebook page without permission and out of context. For the record: Totnes FM has NEVER spoken to a “spokesperson for the High Wycombe branch of the movement” and we would not offer them any such response. Comments on Facebook pages are personal opinions. Rob Hopkins and TTT should be assured of our support for their work.]