Nestled in the heart of East Anglia, the historic market town of Diss is a shining example of a successful Cittaslow UK town. Here, residents, businesses, community groups and councillors are working towards a better relationship with the environment, improving community cohesion and creating a high standard of living for all. This article takes an in-depth look at the town’s achievements since becoming Cittaslow accredited and what the future holds.
You could be forgiven for passing by the town of Diss. Positioned as it is on the London to Norwich line, or by road on the way to the beaches of Great Yarmouth, Diss is a place that people travel through, rather than go to. This is a shame, because something interesting, revolutionary even, has been stirring in this charming market town for some time, and people are beginning to take note.
This is not to say that Diss hasn’t been in the spotlight over recent years. The Times named it one of their top ten destinations for downsizing to in 2009, and again in 2010 they gave it a value rating of 4/5 saying “the price of a detached house is still well under half of what you would pay in the capital. The pretty town centre with its 16th-century buildings
gives it a village feel, but you have everything you need.”
Regardless of how good the shopping is, it takes more than keenly priced housing and a few decent restaurants for today’s towns to thrive in the manner enjoyed by Diss residents. It’s as if something alchemic has been occurring under the surface, something subtle, almost intangible – yet significant.
People who do alight the train in Diss might be unsure of what to expect. Today’s news is crammed with tales of struggling post-industrial market towns and forlorn photographs of deserted high streets; boarded up shop fronts and lurid coloured take-away signs are often bandied about to illustrate the depths of this depressing decline.
Yet it would seem that some places are working hard to buck the trend. Certain towns appear to have hit upon what could only be explained as a magic formula for community cohesion and improved quality of life.
Walking through the north quarter visitors gets a real sense of the uniqueness of this place. Slotted between boutique shops, selling everything from designer clothes, books, organic wool and food, are bustling cafes and restaurants selling locally sourced food.
Amandines café is a successful vegetarian restaurant. The owner Sue Nicholls, a slim, energetic woman whose passion for her business is evident, long ago gave up telling people that the menu is meat-free because, in her opinion, as long as the food is good people tend not to notice. Those considering arguing this point with her should note that the café is often heaving by 10am.
Sue is a member of the Fair Green Neighbourhood Association (FGNA). For nearly 700 years an annual fair was held in the area and for 400 of those years it was held on Fair Green, hence the name. The FGNA, with Diss Town Council, manage this space for the benefit of the whole community – a noticeable theme in Diss with many volunteering in addition to work commitments.
The volunteer-run museum is currently managed by Basil Abbott, a man with a passion for the history of Diss. The walls are crammed with displays. People of note who were born, lived or visited the town from Thomas Paine to former Poet-Laureate John Skelton, are all celebrated here. Basil also sits on the Diss Community committee that aim to promote a sense of community and sustainable living in Diss and who were instrumental in Diss achieving Cittaslow status. There’s a busy Friday market, a Tourist Information Centre containing a wealth of leaflets about local projects and events including the Diss Community Farm newsletter created by volunteers and self-funded through
The farm’s members have a plot of land; everybody pays for a share of the produce; people can go along to the non-compulsory workdays, get involved with growing the food that they eat and connect with their local community. Dr Gary Alexander, author of the fascinating ‘eGaia – growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications,’ is highly involved in this project, seeing it through from conception to today’s achievements and he continues to be a highly committed member of various committees, including Cittaslow and Transition Towns.
Another wonderful example of a community led project is The Corn Hall. This 19th century corn exchange is managed by the Friends of Diss Corn Hall that comprises of (predominantly) volunteers whose aim is to keep this stunning building in use as an imaginative and thriving arts centre. Performances are diverse, interesting and exceptionally high quality; one of the UK’s finest comic poets, Luke Wright, recently performed a sell-out show there. There’s also music, theatre, film and more. The Corn Hall almost shouldn’t exist in a small town so close to the capital – but it does; and it’s to the credit of the people of Diss, the many volunteers, and the dedicated team run by Angela Sykes, that this is the case.
The characters in Diss are as diverse as the town itself: Councillor Jay Hurley sits on Cittaslow’s committee. She runs the fabulous Cycle Divas and manages to make even servicing a bike look stylish. Architect Sarah Roberts was involved in helping Diss to become Cittaslow accredited and designs stunning eco-houses amongst other things; Councillors Tony Palmer, Beth Dewhurst, Neil Howard (Cittaslow Diss committee chairman), Town Clerk, Deborah Sarson and Cittaslow volunteer Jane Trippett-Jones also need to be added to this list of committed individuals as they are all part of Diss town council and work tirelessly to promote Cittaslow initiatives and support projects in the town. And of course the many committed individuals at Diss Business Forum are continually supporting local businesses through various initiatives including Diss on View, where recently 87 savvy businesses turned out for the latest networking brunch, with 41 staying the course to enjoy the champagne party in honour of Diss on View’s 5th birthday organised by the fabulously vivacious Jenna Cox at Articulate HLC.
Of course this rosy portrait is not the whole picture. There are empty storefronts, some traditional shops have gone out of business and residents worry that the town centre will be overwhelmed by an influx of high-street-chain-stores. Diss residents have the same concerns and anxieties as post-industrial market-towns all over the UK. But, a contributing factor to Diss’ ability to remain positive in today’s uncertain climate has been the benefits attained through membership of Cittaslow.
In 2006 Diss became the third town in the UK to join the international Cittaslow movement. In 2007 Diss Community Partnership was awarded £100,000 from the EU Leader+ fund for projects specifically meeting the Cittaslow criteria and promoting its principles. Further match funding increased this amount to £146,000. This enabled the town to deliver a full programme of activities that benefited residents. The programme included Re-branding Diss as a Cittaslow town and agreeing to aspire to Cittaslow’s goals: a programme of activities that ensured local residents and organisations adopted and understood the Cittaslow ethos; improving sustainability of the local clay lump industry through audits of buildings and training opportunities; and a delegate grant scheme that successfully supported 15 projects enhancing Diss as a Cittaslow
The effects of this continue to be seen throughout the town today. The heritage projects included supporting local church and museum initiatives as well as helping to develop demand in the local construction industry for traditional building techniques using local materials such as clay lump. Environmental initiatives included funding a ‘Diss Goes Green’ event for Diss Business Forum. Both businesses and the public were encouraged to give opinions and develop ideas about how they could participate in a green and sustainable future for Diss. The town also created a wildlife trail through Diss Park and began a campaign to ban plastic bags through generating awareness around the topic.
Residents were encouraged to stay fit and healthy through additional funding for antenatal projects, Tai Chi classes for elderly people who had suffered falls, and the football club were able to offer additional coaching opportunities to under nine-year-olds as well as continuing to promote soccer to all ages. The Diss Lit book festival celebrated Diss’ rich literary past through talks, workshops, readings and displays. The Citizens Advice Bureau hosted a live music and beer festival
supporting local artists and producers; the Rotary Club built display panels for exhibiting art and youth group S N Sounds held a live music gig in Diss Park. Finally Cittaslow funding supported projects that improved the town’s infrastructure such as successfully bidding for Action for Market Towns that brought new seating, litter bins, aromatic planting, a wildlife trail and new notice boards to the town.
These are just some examples of what was achieved in Diss through Cittaslow accreditation in a two-year timeframe. The benefits are still being enjoyed to this day and Diss hasn’t stopped there. Through Diss Community Committee, Diss Town Council and the town’s many volunteer groups, the Cittaslow town of Diss continues with its vision of improving the quality of life for all. It takes hard work, dedication and many many volunteer hours to keep the town forging forward in this way, but the benefits to everybody are making themselves more apparent each day.