The Town Hall People’s Assembly: Sunday March 19th 2023
Photographs: Kevin Redpath
“A massive milestone was crossed yesterday” as a friend said on the Monday, echoing the words of Graham Harvey as he’d ambled around the stage giving the opening address of the ‘Let’s talk about local food’ event at Glastonbury Town Hall. His audience listened with something more than polite appreciation. It was the first time that their Town Hall had been filled to capacity with a discussion designed to help create a world that they could truly believe in. By the next weekend, when it rained all night and British Summer Time arrived in the morning like a great wide muddy puddle, it seemed as if all had returned to normal; but something real had quietly become more possible. The seeds of a world that we really want to live in had been sown, at last.
Graham Harvey was for years a farming journalist – and an Archers script writer – before becoming known for his radical books about the demise of the English countryside, brought about by intensive farming and big business. His enthusiasm for radical change was clearly still as strong as ever. He was followed by a variety of local speakers, all involved hands-on in creating a vibrant and regenerative example of what agriculture could be: Karina Ponton, from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group; Dan Britton from Plotgate community farm and Joel Bunting from the National Trust, both of which were involved in the Avalon 5FF project that had led up to the Town Hall event; and Mark Wells and Bon Everson from Bridie’s Farm, a new community growing project with land purchase and start-up costs paid for through the Towns Fund scheme.
5FF was the Five Mile Food and Farming project, in which five farmers and growers from within a five mile radius of Glastonbury had spent five months trialing agroecological methods on their land. This seemed particularly remarkable for the National Trust, which is beginning to define the fields they own around the Tor as a farm. Joel made clear that their intention was to continue developing this after the experience of the five-month pilot project. Avalon had been described as having ‘a strong natural, social and agricultural identity’, with its traditions making it ‘an ideal zone for widespread adoption of agroecological principles and practices’; the Trust – caretakers of the iconic Glastonbury Tor – appears to have taken this on with some enthusiasm.
People’s Assembly discussions followed each two speakers, so they came in three rounds: the first looked at what the problems are, the second at where we would actually like to be, and the third at how to get there. In the language of local Councils and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, this was a consultation, intended to shape the next stage of the Avalon 5FF project. In the Town Hall everyone was sitting at small tables, each named after a vegetable. At the end of each round someone from each table came up to the front of the hall and read out their group’s five most important points on each subject.
The key problems that emerged were (1) a lack of education about food production, health and its relationship to healthy food, and information governing our choices about what to buy and eat; (2) supermarkets: the pressure they put on producers, their effective monopoly of food supply, and the lack of consumer control; (3) land ownership, the industrialisation of agriculture, and the unethical and unnatural decisions made as a result of the all-pervasive profit motive; (4) at a national level, the lack of any cultural or political encouragement to envision a transition to changing current practices, which is made to look impossible; and (5) the lack of an adequate local distribution network to give people ready access to healthy locally-grown food. Also raised were various problems related to pollution, chemical use, soil health and the environment generally.
This was the main business of the morning, after which some excellent soup and cake were provided for lunch. We were encouraged to look at the stalls and talk to the stall-holders during the lunch break, all of them representing local organisations participating in the event. After lunch the speakers and the discussions focused on where we would want to get to in response to these problems, and on how we could get there – creating something new.
The key goals identified were (1) better connection to nature and to the land; (2) a new approach to education, both in schools and in the adult community, addressing the problems listed above; (3) more – and more reliable – access to land, for small-scale mixed farmers – who have been systematically squeezed out of farming for decades, for more groups such as the Plotgate community farm and the Bridie’s Farm group, and for individuals looking for allotments; (4) changes to create a more self-sufficient and resilient local economy, based on harnessing local resources and supporting local traders and businesses; and (5) the re-establishment of traditional small-scale farms, as well as encouragement for co-operative and community-based farming projects. These objectives are all clearly inter-linked, and together would represent the beginnings of a radical change in society. This would mean a very different relationship to the land, and indeed to the planet as a whole.
The third round of the People’s Assembly discussion – addressing the question ‘How do we get there?’ – was intended to generate a road map, an outline plan for achieving the key goals. Many of the suggestions that came forward were beyond the scope of short-term local community action, though that does not make them invalid – they formed a good expression of the meeting’s long-term aspirations. At the same time, each of the five key goals were supported by at least one proposal that was feasible in the short-to-medium term, and that would take the community process forward. This (amongst other things) would almost certainly increase the community’s appreciation of local, sustainable and regenerative food production. This in turn would support those farmers and growers – hopefully in steadily increasing numbers – who are willing to follow the example of those involved in the Avalon 5FF pilot project and try for themselves the regenerative methods that have been and are being demonstrated.
In relation to the key goals listed above, the ‘next steps’ which stand out most clearly are the following: (1) encourage an essentially spiritual connection to the land – ‘Slow down and listen to Gaia’, ‘Remember the sacredness of the Earth’; (2) hold an annual Harvest Fair, as a celebration, to share information and to show-case existing projects; (3) establish a community Land Trust or Land Fund, specifically linked to agroecological development; (4) set up a local food distribution hub, both as a way of supporting local growers and as a step towards establishing a more self-sufficient and resilient local economy; and (5) extending and continuing the Avalon 5FF process. The pilot project and the people’s assembly have, after all, marked a beginning, a step into making ideas – that have mostly been around for some time – into a new reality; a vision of the future that is now already happening.
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