Thursday 8 April 2010

Resilience: what can we learn from Norwich's past?

We're facing tough times here in Norwich, but the city has survived huge crises before. I'm exploring the lessons we can learn from turbulent times in Norwich’s past; and I hope to draw also on Norwich’s potential for a resilient future.

I’ll start with a remarkable study that I discovered recently, while working in the Resilience Plan team. It’s Norwich: A Social Study by C B Hawkins. The book jacket says: “Norwich, with its 125,000 inhabitants, presents on a small scale all the features of a metropolitan city. Except London and Bristol, no other English city has been for so long an important manufacturing and commercial centre….the book is the outcome of close personal investigations on the spot by an experienced student of social conditions, and presents a lucid study of an exceptionally interesting provincial city.” What’s remarkable about this study is that it was written exactly a hundred years ago, in 1910. There are so many parallels with the crises that we are facing today.

Now, our Transition colleagues in Totnes (after their recent training session with Norfolk County Council) don’t seem to have picked up on the fact that Norwich is indeed ‘an exceptionally interesting provincial city’. It’s never been a rural backwater, in spite of one of my favourite jokes: “East Anglia, cut off on three sides by the sea… and on the fourth by British Rail”. It was interesting enough for the Normans to choose it for a very strong statement of their control, with their new cathedral, the castle and a new location for the ancient market.

And, as everyone knows, the city became very rich indeed with the wool trade – just count the number of medieval churches as an indication of its wealth. Global trading is something that Norwich has done very well for at least the last four hundred years. But what attracted the skilled silk weavers who gave it an extra importance? Why did they come here rather than anywhere else? Skilled migrant workers are nothing new for Norwich; in the time of the first Elizabeth an astonishing one third of the population were migrant workers. Norwich grew very prosperous.

….And then, an economic crisis very similar to the current threat of peak oil: the lucrative textile industry deserted Norwich in favour of much cheaper power in the industrial north of England.

If you go to the beautiful Suffolk towns of Lavenham and Long Melford, you’ll see what happened next to most of the East Anglian wool towns. They went bust. That’s why they are preserved just the way they were in the eighteenth century.

But Norwich is made of sterner stuff. It didn’t go bust. It found new industry, in spite of extreme economic pressure, compounded by the impact of the agricultural industrial revolution, forcing huge numbers of unskilled labourers to abandon the countryside for the city.

The Hawkins study shows that, in spite of a lot of poverty, Norwich was able to survive because it created new industry that gave people jobs; there was also a very strong fabric of community. A hundred years on, what are the clues about resilience and what are the job prospects for Norwich’s citizens? I’ll pick up on that theme tomorrow.

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