Treorchy Talk of the Town event

Storytelling for the success of Welsh towns

Published: 27/05/20 | Categories: Author: Lauren Pennycook

Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust, looks at how storytelling can help improve towns across Wales once the Covid-19 crisis has abated.

The rainbow has become the symbol of hope in windows across Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic. They cheer up local children; remind us that storms don’t last forever; and, ultimately, encourage us to chase the rainbow. But they serve a deeper purpose than this. They signal who we are and what communities aspire to be – supportive, together, and focused on the future. They tell the story of what communities are experiencing today, and hope for tomorrow.

Nowhere is this reflection of a community’s story more apparent than in Treorchy. A small town in the Rhondda Valleys of South Wales, it has transformed from its pre-industrial past to pride of place among Britain’s high streets. It has transitioned from being known for coal mining, to male voice choirs, to brass bands, to limiting big name brands on its high street. It has had highs – the discovery of the ‘Black Gold’ in the nineteenth century – and lows – the loss of its industry and people. All of these are chapters in the story of Treorchy. But who writes this narrative, how, and why?

International evidence on the power of storytelling to improve places is clear. As part of a series of measures designed to transform the fortunes of communities, towns with a clear story about their history and purpose have proven to thrive. But under what conditions can the results seen in America, Australia, and New Zealand be replicated closer to home? How can storytelling be used to support towns in the UK?

The Carnegie UK Trust – one of the largest foundations in the UK to be based in a town – sought to explore just this through its Talk of the Town project. After a competitive application process, the Trust chose to support Treorchy and Scarborough with storytelling expertise – two very different towns with very different pasts, current circumstances, and aspirations for the future. With professional storytelling support, citizens across streets, sectors, and circumstances were brought together to identify the story of their town that is the golden thread from its past, present, and future possibility. In Treorchy, their story acknowledges the town’s industrial heritage, celebrates its success on the high street, and looks ahead to the offer that can be made by its outdoors, creativity, and tourism by working in partnership.

But how can this be replicated across Wales? Treorchy has had marked success in bucking national, even international, trends on the high street, with over 80% of businesses being independent boutique stores; outdoor cinema events being attended by 500 people; and unique partnerships in place between buses and business. Of course these activities cannot, and should not be attempted to be, copied across the country – each town has its own unique history, assets, and opportunities. Instead, this is about bringing together communities in a collective narrative so that their story is crafted, and above all, used in the development of towns.

Instead, what we can offer are reflections from providing this storytelling support – from ourselves and the citizens of Treorchy and Scarborough – to funders, policymakers and practitioners interested in supporting storytelling in Wales’ communities.

Firstly, the need for treasure – a small pot of funding or the provision of direct support – to unlock capacity to full and active participation; to cover costs; and to deliver creative outputs to continue the conversation. And where support is provided through storytelling expertise, using the skills of an organisation outwith the community can provide the confidence, independence and impartiality that some members of the community crave.

But money can’t buy time. Bringing members of the community together to develop the story of their place is a long-term, iterative process of empowerment, engagement and editing. Using opportunities at which the community is already coming together, routinely or in crisis, can support the process by using pre-existing relationships and networks to full effect.

This is why trust is key. That is, trust between the members of the community involved in crafting the story, and trust between the funder and community. The willingness to co-produce; the convening power to carry the community on the journey; and the use of spaces considered to be safe, neutral and kind, all help to facilitate trust and good working relationships.

And finally securing a diversity of thought – those across different streets, spaces and sectors must be represented in discussions on the town’s story. The absence of full representation of the town’s demographics, of its economic and social structures, will result in the absence of legitimacy.  Residents must be able see themselves in the town’s story – in what the story relays as the town’s past, its current conditions, and its future goals. An intergenerational approach ensures that the story does not live in the past; is not owned entirely by those in the present; and takes into account the needs and aspirations of future generations. In Treorchy, schoolchildren were included in the project from the outset, and by taking into account their ambitions for their town, their story seeks to retain its citizens, and attract their counterparts to ensure its sustainability.

So when the time comes where rainbows can be take down from Wales’ windows, the next chapter in the story of its communities can begin – a chapter on how they changed how they lived and worked; how they held on to the new ways they came together during the pandemic; how they built back better. But this chapter will be firmly grounded in our communities’ histories and goals for the future. This chapter will be firmly grounded in how a global pandemic was met with a local response, because of where Wales’ communities have come from, where they are now, and what they aspire to be.