The Mansion, Totnes
The Mansion is in the centre of Totnes, occupied by the library and some council staff. The building is run by Devon County Council (DCC) which no longer wants to use it to its current capacity. Disposal of the asset has been made impossible by historic covenants on its use.
The Totnes Caring Town Network has been keen to develop a central space in the town which it can co-use and which could provide them with a prominent ‘shop counter’. The Mansion presented itself as an opportunity.
Getting support from the right people
The Network didn’t have a democratic mandate for the proposal it was developing about the potential future of the site, and needed to work with the town council.
The partnership worked closely to shape its vision for the building in a collaboration between town councillors, Helen the Town Clerk and the Transition Town coordinator, Frances, who has been leading the development of the Network.
While the town council brought democratic legitimacy and a focus on practical concerns around costs and responsibilities, Transition Town Totnes brought the positive energy necessary to build momentum, generate the enthusiasm to keep people motivated and keep finding solutions to challenges.
Helen, Town Clerk, said: “If you’re council focused, you can miss those community links known by the networks that already exist. Some people may look only at the statutory players and miss this important connection. As a council we can’t approach things in the same way that a group like Transition Town can.”
Frances, Caring Town Network, said: ”As Transition Town Totnes, we can take risks in a way that the council can’t. It’s about creating the sort of organisation in a community that can be positive and optimistic and make things work.”
Frances and Helen think the mix of skills, experience and personalities has been crucial in driving the project forward. This mix has involved the town council and the Caring Town Network as well as DCC’s Locality Lead for Totnes, Tony Parker, and a locally based community development consultant, Dave Chapman.
The Locality Lead has been essential. Already involved with the development of the Caring Town Network, Tony had good links with its members as well as with a range of people in the local authority.
The Network secured SIB funding to undertake a feasibility study looking at the transfer of a major asset from DCC. This funded Transition Town’s co-ordinator Frances to project manage, and to bring in additional expertise from Dave, the locally based consultant.
Helen said: “We couldn’t have done this without Dave. He has a lot of experience in this field, he knows the town and the key players really well, and he could point to useful example projects in other places from which we could learn.”
What challenges has the project faced?
One challenge was finding the most appropriate people to work with in DCC. Early conversations about the building failed to gain traction and progress was slow, but once the Locality Lead became involved, it became easier to open up more productive conversations with different parts of the council.
What will be happening next?
A surveyor’s report on the state of the building has revealed potential cost burdens that the project steering group was unaware of, with resource implications for the project and how it can be funded.
In addition, the opening of DCC’s new Rushbrook premises 500 yards away has created a new community space, with implications for the level of demand that The Mansion can expect to generate. This means that the steering group is revisiting its business model.
The next stage is for the relatively small steering group of Transition Town, county and town council representatives to disband and reform as a wider ‘Friends of The Mansion’ group, so that the project can draw on a wider pool of energy and skills. It’s felt that a broad-based collaborative effort will be the best approach to reshaping a plan so that The Mansion works as a space.