Wales is very lucky where market towns are concerned. As the majority of them have such fascinating character and architecture, it’s natural that they’ve been appointed as ‘heritage areas’. But that heritage isn’t just on the surface – and that’s not something that’s down to county council planning departments.
A market is the cornerstone of these towns. Traditionally, they were places to meet to buy and sell – and that’s what they still are. Sometimes this needs to be stressed. I also know only too well that market towns include businesses supporting each other. A huge store coming in and trying to sell everything and encroach on the territory of everyone else in town does not work within this heritage. A healthy market in these towns is circular – businesses looking for gaps to be filled at all costs, but buying and selling from and to each other as well. That’s how it’s always been and it must remain so if the towns are to prosper. It’s the independent shops that are the backbone of that type of economy and the family businesses which still maintain this type of trading are to be commended.
But there’s more to it than just businesses buying from each other. There must be people from the area on the streets of the town in order to create a real market. Already we’ve seen no less than a revolution in local production in these areas. The food and drink sector is very much at the forefront and has created a brand new culture which has become a way of life for locals, and also attractive to visitors and specialist restaurants. The same kind of revival also came to light in the world of arts and crafts and it would be good to see these principles extend to other areas. In an age where we increasingly talk on the telephone answering machine and expect someone on another continent to be able to answer questions about local services, isn’t it nice to get to know the producers and discuss the products with shoppers?
It’s not easy, of course. We’re encouraged to believe that everything is cheaper in large stores and that it pays for us to go far away to spend. But they say that 20% of the food basket in a large store goes to waste. Two for the price of one is not a bargain if the second is rotting at the back of the fridge. And it’s not easy to find free parking space either – it’s not surprising that shops in Cardigan saw a 25% increase in business during those months when the town’s parking meters were broken. Perhaps we will get more business sense from the councils soon – they recognise that free parking for two weeks before Christmas makes a difference, so at least they know the facts.
But in the meantime, it’s bags for life, and back and forth from pavement to pavement, from shop to shop to enjoy local produce from our local counters. We’re very blessed indeed with our market towns.