On Tuesday 17th April, at Totnes Civic Hall, around 300 people from across the community gathered to hear the latest about the Atmos Totnes campaign, and its work to bring the former Dairy Crest site into community ownership.  The campaign was launched 5 weeks ago by patron Jonathan Dimbleby, and has since generated a lot of media coverage, gathered over 40 ‘Atmos Voices’ on the campaign website www.atmostotnes.org, and has a meeting arranged for May 4th with Dairy Crest to discuss the site’s future.

The evening was chaired by Rob Hopkins of Transition Town Totnes, who welcomed everyone and put the evening in the context of the upcoming meeting with Dairy Crest, and how the aim was to give a full picture of the story, to answer peoples’ questions, and to get a sense of the level of support (each speaker mentioned below is followed by a podcast recording of their talk).

The Mayor of Totnes, Judy Westacott officially opened the evening, telling the audience that as a child, her favourite hymn was ‘Fight the Good Fight’ and the Atmos Totnes campaign thus far has been a great and inspirational example of that.  She reflected on attending an early meeting the group had with then-MP Anthony Steen, adding that “since then, the group has been trying and trying and trying to engage Dairy Crest to look at what is obviously one of the best proposals to come to Totnes for many years and Dairy Crest have done nothing”.

The next speaker was Cllr Pruw Boswell, one of the people who organised the campaign to save the building from demolition in late 2007/2008.  The campaign was successful in getting the building listed and saving it from what appeared to be the imminent threat of demolition.  She put this down to the “people-power” in Totnes, and argued that Atmos Totnes was another great example of this.

Dave Chapman and Ed Vidler of Atmos Totnes address the public meeting.

Then Dave Chapman of Locality and Ed Vidler of Totnes Development Trust, the other key organisation behind the campaign, gave a round up of the story of the Atmos project so far.  Dave has been involved since the idea of Atmos was first launched back in 2007, and noted how the project has seen various Dairy Crest property managers and South Hams planners come and go.  “Since 2007”, he told the public meeting, “we’ve just been grinding away at it.  These journeys take an incredibly long period of time, what’s quite amazing is that this is the first time, after a number of public meetings, that I’ve seen the Civic Hall full.  So either we’re now getting something right, or the time is now right.  I feel it in my waters that the time is now right”.

Ed Vidler gave a more detailed overview of the key developments in the story so far, concluding with the recent meeting between Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Dairy Crest officials.  Dairy Crest told the MP “we wish to leave a legacy for Totnes”, a statement received with laughter from the audience.  “We know what kind of legacy they’ve left so far”, Ed concluded, “but we have to take that as a positive statement”.

Andrew Kirby from LED Architects talked about the design work that has been done so far for the site.  He showed some of the images for the site layout, how different parts of the site might be developed, how a restored Brunel Building might look.

Sara Neuff works for Coin Street Community Builders in London, an initiative that began in the 1970s and is the UK’s best model of a community owning and developing its own assets.  She spoke of why Atmos matters in the national context and how it would be a really important precedent.  She said “the exciting thing about Atmos is that it is the opportunity to look at an alternative resilient economic model in the heart of a community that is determining it themselves rather than external developers coming in.  Atmos has that opportunity to really bring economic, social and environmental issues together and that’s why this is of such national importance.  I really think there’s an opportunity here that would be a national case study”.

Cllr. Jill Tomalin addresses the Atmos Totnes public meeting.

Cllr. Jill Tomalin spoke about the wider context in Totnes of the pressure for new development the town is facing, and how one of the big challenges is that land is put aside for employment generation, but beyond new care homes, no-one seems to know how to turn land into jobs.  What we do know though, she said, is that in Devon, what growth there is is coming from small and medium-sized businesses.

“I do feel there is a huge opportunity here” Cllr. Tomalin said.  “An opportunity for a new way of working, a new model which is nationally significant.  Atmos can be a trailblazer to show just how we can convert land into jobs, working with the community, working in an integrated way and helping to ensure that we get a balanced and healthy society in which to live.  Atmos has the vision to develop that and to deliver it, it increasingly has the expertise to deliver it, and we know that we desperately need it and that the country would benefit if we find this new model and on that basis I think we should do everything we possibly can to help  this project to become a success”.

People were then invited to form into small groups and to ask the question “what would need to happen on the former Dairy Crest site in order for me to be completely delighted with it?”  You can see the many answers generated here.

After this was a questions and answers/feedback session which allowed the audience to give their thoughts.

At the end of the evening, to a resounding “yes!” each time, Rob Hopkins asked, “so we do we go to the meeting with Dairy Crest with your support?” and “would you like this to happen?”  “Fantastic”, he concluded, let’s do it then”.  The evening concluded with many of those attending posing for a photo which will be taken to the meeting with Dairy Crest, to be held on May 4th.