To inspire, inform and enable...
For this week’s topic on economics, I was planning to write a lovely light and positive article on Fresh and Local, our local market co-operative, but as a social reporter, I aim to report on what’s going down in my community and recent events have forced a change of plan. So apologies, but here it is:
Last week the equivalent of a bombshell dropped on our local high street: without warning or notice, two popular businesses ceased trading and Machynlleth lost its whole food shop and cafe overnight. Both are part of the commercial arm of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and they have been a fixture of our high street for well over 30 years.
Originally, both cafe and shop were accommodated in the same premises and I fondly remember the steamy, cramped, but cosy atmosphere of the “Quarry Caff”. It was where the local shakers and movers, or hippies as the locals had it, met over endless cups of tea and bowls of homemade soup with their famous wholemeal rolls. Whenever I went there, I was guaranteed to meet somebody I knew and interesting conversations on topics such as Maggie’s Poll Tax, free festivals, New Age travellers and occasionally “alternative energy generation” or renewables, as it’s now better known, were to be had. Ah, those heady days, when there was time to sit around and discuss the state of the world at length. Eventually, the whole foods grocery part moved out to a lovely little shop a few doors up the street and the cafe was refurbished. More tables, an espresso machine and a thorough redecorating job later and the Quarry Cafe was now ready to receive more mainstream customers and tourists. The vegetarian whole food menu stayed however and chips have never been served there.
It’s no secret that CAT plc is having serious financial difficulties. Employees have taken cuts in both pay and hours; others have been made redundant and over the last two years stress levels for those who work there have been even higher than usual, while morale has plummeted. For many who still work there, the original enthusiasm at working for such an innovative organisation, dedicated to exploring sustainable ways of living is increasingly harder to sustain. Lack of money has always been an issue, right from the start, but somehow the staff at CAT managed to keep it going, kept on exploring new ideas and technologies and continued offering their findings to the wider world, like the Zero Carbon Britain Report. But then the financial crisis, the faltering economy and several years of dismal summer weather took their toll; visitor numbers, an important source of income, were well below what was needed and banks got twitchy about outstanding loans for capital projects. The skills of the magical tricks department, aka CAT’s accountancy section, failed to impress the more conventionally minded bankers and an overhaul of CAT finances was imposed. And when it is found that a plc is running short of money, it has to take action, by law; which is why the cafe and shop closed.
To say that CAT is important to our local economy is an understatement. With a workforce of between 120 to 140 souls, it is by far the biggest employer around. But it has done far more than just provide employment; over its 40 year existence it has not just influenced the area, it has in many ways shaped it. Without CAT, Machynlleth would not be the centre for “green” tourism that it is now. Several other businesses, like for instance Dulas Engineering, are direct offspring and the constant influx of young, bright eyed and bushy tailed volunteers and interns have given the town a dynamism that many other historic rural Welsh towns are sorely lacking. Many Quarry “vols”, stayed in the area after their term at CAT and their enthusiasm and energy gave rise to more interesting and innovative projects than I can remember. Dyfi Valley Seedsavers, the Apple Mach project, This is Rubbish and the recent Dyfi Land Share project are but a few. Without the centre it is doubtful that this area would have been given the UNESCO Biosphere status and I think the catalytic effect of CAT, it’s projects and the people it brought to this place cannot be overestimated. Its presence has benefitted the other businesses in town by attracting thousands of tourists every year, so it should come as no surprise that the sudden closure of the cafe and shop, compounded by the finalistic statement released by the centre, send shivers down the high street. When the BBC and the local newspaper subsequently wrongly reported that “eleven people had lost their jobs”, the local reaction wasn’t kind. One of the comments on CAT’s Facebook page states the feeling:
“Does anyone know if CAT tried selling off the cafe and shop as a going concern? Surely if money is the problem, that would be a good place to start? Not only is it sad that people have lost their jobs, but it’s very sad that someone locally didn't have the opportunity to continue trading under another name and maintain a hard to find viable business! I really fear for the future of Mach's retail and tourism industry. There are fewer and fewer reasons to come to the town at all.. Shame is, this will also decrease the number of tourists visiting CAT as an attraction!! And around we go!!!”
BTW, the 11 employees have not been fired, but have been temporarily laid off, while CAT plc directors explore options.
Already Machynlleth has more empty shops than is healthy for a market town. Times are hard and getting harder for most traders here and the fear of a domino effect is a real one. The sudden loss of two more businesses brings one thing sharply into focus: what happens to one shop has an effect on all the other ones. A while back a small group of traders set up a Chamber of Commerce with the intention of working together at promoting Machynlleth as great place to visit, amongst other things. Unfortunately the project folded for several reasons, but the main problem was simply lack of interest. Maybe now, in the light of recent developments, the businesspeople of this town might realise the benefits of co-operation in a small rural place like Machynlleth. Perhaps if such an institution had been in place, CAT might have had some help with finding a solution to keeping the shop and cafe going as it is in everybody’s interest to keep the high street alive.
In times of crisis anger and fear are rife. If there are vacuums where there should be information, they will be filled with gossip and innuendo, creating yet more anger and fear. No doubt CAT could have done a better job at communicating with the local community and no doubt the locals could cut CAT some slack instead of turning it into some kind of metaphorical Mordor. Sure there’s a lot of history and we all can feed our grievances or we can choose to see the bigger picture; in a world of declining resources and unstable climate, where many of the old models of governance and economics are crumbling, CAT is:
“concerned with the search for globally sustainable, whole and ecologically sound technologies and ways of life.”
Surely that’s worth remembering and supporting. On the other hand their mission statement also claims to have a holistic approach to their work and that must mean that their expertise needs to carry through into the world of economics. As Jay Tompt states in this week’s leading article:
“I would argue that economics is a subset of ecology and that developing economic literacy is also vitally important"
No longer can CAT indulge in just being an ivory tower of academia and research into technology. Times have changed and in order to survive, greater economic skills need to be developed. Is it not the practices of the current economic growth system that has landed the world in this predicament of climate change and resource depletion? Is it not that same system that now has a stranglehold on CAT, draining its life blood and the energy of the people who work there, some of whom have given the best part of their life to fulfil the dream of educating the public about sustainable technologies? Know thy enemy, goes the old adage and therefore I would encourage CAT to start exploring the world of economics with the same zest and intelligence that they normally reserve for the field of renewable technology. There's the New Economics Foundation, REconomy and the postgraduate course in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College where lots of inspiration and ideas can be found.
Only recently, our community has shown the world that in times of crisis, it is very good at coming together and supporting one another. CAT is part of our community, so let’s get on with it. In these extraordinary times we will need to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve those things we hold dear, but we don’t need to do it alone, we can do it together.
Just for clarity’s sake, CAT’s education and research charity that runs the visitor centre and graduate school are functioning within normal parameters...
Photo's: Closing notice in Quarry Shop's window / Quarry Shop/ Selection of empty shops on Machynlleth high street / Sunflowers in bloom at the Centre for Alternative Technology by John and Lynn Williams