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The Big Buxton Conversation

Buxton is a pretty spa town in the Peak District in Derbyshire that has always been refreshingly different.  Famous for water, music and the spectacular landscape in which it sits, the area has long attracted artists and creative thinkers to live alongside the quarry workers whose labours produce the stone that features in the local built environment.  Somehow the combination of heavy industry and inspirational beauty conspire to give the town a real sense of independent spirit.

That spirit is expressed in a host of ways from sustaining the ancient tradition of well dressing, to ‘seeing off’ a proposed out of town Tesco with a ‘No Thanks’ campaign, to Christmas decorations made by community groups when the Council lights failed, and an inspirational response to the pandemic by Buxton Street by Street.  Buxton has no town or parish council, and is ‘governed’ by the Borough and County Councils which may explain the plethora of local community groups including;

  • Buxton Town Team – still going strong after being established by the Portas programme 10 years ago and currently leading on a sustainable transport plan.
  • Vision Buxton – the business partnership that runs
  • Buxton Civic Association – well established and the owner of some green spaces
  • Transition Buxton – driving sustainability including a community orchard, and monthly Repair Café
  • Accessible Buxton – looking after those with special access needs including recently securing the installation of a Changing Places Toilet in the town centre
  • Plus neighbourhood residents associations, Churches Together, various Friends of groups for parks and the station, arts organisations, heritage groups, the list goes on.

In spring 2021 Buxton was one of a growing list of towns and villages to undertake a whole town conversation and visioning exercise.  Supported by a small Lottery Community Fund grant via the Transition Network ‘The Big Buxton Conversation’ invited ‘everyone who lives, works, studies, owns property or runs a business in Buxton to come together.  Despite the pandemic forcing the activity online 70 people signed up for a 5-hour journey one sunny Saturday afternoon.  And what a journey it was!

The ‘What if’ visioning process designed by the Transition Network (What if – Transition Bounce forward ( started with ‘What is’ – taking stock of the things we love and want to retain.  This was followed by ‘What if’ - an imaginative journey to 30 years from now from which we brought back a host of ‘glorious ideas’ and ‘what if questions’ from our future selves.  Then finally ‘What next’ – what are we going to start doing now to create the place we imagined for our future.  The time raced past, aided by a live sketch artist capturing our ideas visually, and all the participants said they had enjoyed the journey.

Ten themes for change emerged from The Big Buxton Conversation with local governance tying with Public Transport as the idea with the most energy behind it.  With so many pro-active groups in the town the local authority struggle to engage with and respond to them all and there is a need to coordinate, communicate and collaborate to achieve our shared ambitions. 

A direct result of the Big Conversation is the creation of ‘We Are Buxton’ a forum for the main groups and the two local authorities to come together.  The representatives gathered for the first time in September’21, agreed how we will work together and set a date and the topics for the next meeting.  This new forum is about communication and collaboration, not ‘consultation’, and is already making a difference.  We don’t want to be consulted on decisions made on our behalf, we want to influence the thinking and choices about our place, now and in the future.  The local authorities are pleased to be part of the forum on an equal basis with the group representatives.

The first shared action of the ‘We Are Buxton’ forum is to host a second Big Buxton Conversation, this time 3 hours face to face, in November.  The second conversation (using the remainder of the grant) will work on the themes that emerged from the first Conversation to develop some into projects and initiatives that can be taken forward together. 

Who knows how far or deep this journey will go in Buxton but the value of engaging the individual and collective imagination should not be underestimated.  The ‘What if’ process is simple, fun and highly recommended.  What if you unleashed the imaginations of the people in your town?


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Jean Ball

About the author

Jean Ball

Jean Ball is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and a High Street Task Force Expert.  She has lived in Buxton in Derbyshire for over 30 years and started her place management career there in 2002 after an earlier career in retail and the arts.  Since then Jean served as City Centre Manager in Stoke-on-Trent for over 5 years, before returning to her first love, events, as a freelancer trading as Eventful Places.  Still, an active member of her local community Jean continues to bring her professional expertise and passion for place to her adopted hometown amidst the Derbyshire hills.

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