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Totnes: Britain's town of the future

Totnes: Britain's town of the future

Totnes in Devon might be the most forward-thinking eco settlement in the world. As fossil-fuel reserves dwindle and the economy contracts, will resident-led Transition Towns become the way that we all live?
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Transition initiative, which attempts to provide a blueprint for communities to enable them to make the change from a life dependent on oil to one that functions without, seems to me one of the most viable and sensible plans we have for modern society. I write this on the day it is announced that the UK economy shrank by a "shock" 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010. Everyone is blaming the weather. Hopkins isn't. Neither is he particularly shocked.

"I think the unravelling of the debt bubble has only really started," he says. "Up until 2008 it was all about a growing economy and cheap energy. Then we had expensive energy plus economic growth, then we had cheap energy and economic contraction. So the next phase is volatile energy and economic contraction. It's not rocket science."
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Ben Brangwyn, a relatively recent arrival to Totnes who was to become co-founder of the Transition Network was sold as soon as he heard Hopkins giving a lecture. "It was pretty clear to me, having studied re-localistion efforts around the world, that what Rob and his students had developed in Kinsale was pretty much the smartest bottom-up response to climate change and peak oil that we had seen," says Brangwyn. He wasn't the only person that thought so. Word that there was a man with an actual plan had spread fast and Hopkins was deluged by interest from all over the world. It was clear his ideas needed to be worked up into a more formal movement. "The leap of brilliance in the energy plan was the idea that you can segregate responses to these pressures into energy, food, education, use of transport, local economics, etc," explains Brangwyn. "That's one of the secrets of transition: anybody who has a passion can find a place."

"It's not my movement," Hopkins explains, clearly uncomfortable at being portrayed as the face of the Transition Towns movement. "We're not Coca-Cola, we don't send out a franchise model. It's up to individual communities to interpret Transition however it works best."
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The Transition movement works on the basis that if we wait for government to act on issues such as climate change we'll be waiting until hell freezes over; and if we only act as individuals, that's too little. So it's working together as communities where the real change will happen.
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Hopkins is keen to stress that this is very different to David Cameron's interpretation of localism, devolving power from central government. "It doesn't mean putting a big fence up around Totnes and not letting anything in or out. It doesn't mean Totnes will be making its own laptops and frying pans. But it means in terms of food, building materials, a lot more of that can be done locally. Which in turn makes the place much more resilient to shocks from the outside."

And funnily enough Transition principles seem to appeal to politicians. As the Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting put it, in May 2009: "If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband… was one of the first to spot its potential… and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs' lists of summer reading… The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do." But what of David Cameron's coalition government? "I think Transition could be part of a genuine Big Society," says Hopkins, "but only where initiatives really give power and assets to the community."
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John Crisp, a local farmer who in his spare time heads up Transition Town's new Food Hub project, is keen to point out that the vision extends beyond nuts and that, come April, Totnesians will be able to order their weekly shop online and collect it on a Saturday from the local school. "This is an initiative that connects local farmers to Transition, automatically engaging us with the farming community, of which I am one. And consumers get to buy local produce at prices comparable to those at the supermarket. Our overheads are so small that while shops and supermarkets charge a 30-40% mark up, we'll be at 10%. Meanwhile we give producers a fair return for their produce – more than they would get anywhere else."

More change is coming. Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC), an offshoot of TTT, has two applications in for wind turbines on nearby Kingsbridge hill and recently issued shares so Totnesians will be able to power-down, saving their own energy. And the TTT has designs on the old Dairy Crest building near the station as part of its bid to get more assets into community ownership.

Full article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/feb/06/totnes-transition-town...