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Market towns matter - but what are they?
Friday, 17 January, 2003

Our country columnist John Sheard raises an eyebrow at a Yorkshire Forward decision to designate old West Riding mill communities as "market towns"

ANYONE who lives in North Yorkshire knows of the problems facing our market towns: small shops closing by the dozen, soaring property prices driving young folk away, traffic congestion, drunken hooliganism at the weekends, an ever growing drugs epidemic.

Skipton Hign Street
The list is too long to go into again (it is a subject we have discussed in the past) but when the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, announced its Renaissance Market Towns (RMT) project some time ago, I heartily approved.

The idea is to parachute in highly-paid consultants to work with leaders of the local community - not just councillors but business people, charity workers, traffic managers etc - to come up with a detailed development plan to restore the town involved to its former vitality.

This, I thought, was a rare show of understanding on behalf of a quango created and financed by a Government whose understanding of rural life has ranged from shambolic to downright vindictive.

Ha, ha. One of the first towns to be targeted for the treatment was Scarborough! Now this is a town I am extremely fond of, of which I have many happy memories. But is it a market town?

This week, Yorkshire Forward announced a £2.8 million spend over the next ten years on Renaissance Market Towns (see News) and the first three communities to share the dosh will be …Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden.

Now I have nothing against these three places - I have very close friends in Todmorden and thoroughly enjoy my visits there - but they are set in the Calder Valley, which is just about as heavily populated as any of the old textile areas of the West Riding can be.

Skipton will join the list next, Yorkshire Forward promises - it doesn't say when - but this to me is the first example of what is a proper market town being given a much-needed boost.

So the question arises: what is a market town? No doubt there are lawyers who (for a large fee) would argue that almost any settlement could fit the bill. Most ordinary folk, including me, would have a much simple definition.

It would be a small town set in a hinterland of farming countryside that holds regular livestock sales - which is where the term "market" comes from - or regular open markets. It would have a small number of banks, lawyers, estate agents and valuers whose main job would be to service the local agricultural community.

Scarborough, a seaside resort with a small fishing fleet, or former mill-towns in the Calder Valley hardly fit this particular bill. Skipton does, and is on the waiting list, but what about Settle, Hawes, Bentham - or large villages like Ingleton, Grassington or Kirkby Lonsdale?

These communities are the very focus of life for vast rural areas which are still struggling desperately to overcome the effects of foot and mouth and the disastrous collapse in farm incomes. Do they not need a boost too?

My growing suspicion is that Renaissance Market Town is just another pretty name dreamt up by Government spin doctors to con the public into thinking that they really do have some constructive rural policies - whilst at the same time pumping money into areas which, quite coincidentally, also have large numbers of Labour voters.

And cynical though that may sound, it gives rise for even more morbid thoughts: Yorkshire Forward is breaking the ground for the creation of a Yorkshire Regional Parliament.

If that happened, it would be dominated by politicians from the big towns and cities. And where do you think they would pump any available dosh? Let's hope that, in ten year's time, we are not reading of another rural initiative. It's name: R.I.P. Market Town.

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