Travelling through the west country in 1720, Daniel Defoe was struck by the prosperity of the town of Totnes in Devon. He described how salmon would be trapped at the town's mill on the river Dart, and driven into a net by a dog, enabling the fisherman to catch around 30 fish at a time.
'Of these we took six for our dinner, for which they ask'd a shilling, (viz.) two pence a piece, and for such fish not at all bigger, and not so fresh, I have seen 6s. 6d. each given at a London fish-market, whither they are some time brought from Chichester by land carriage,' he wrote.
Provisions were so cheap that the town was seen as a very good place to live for outsiders with large families, and 'many such are said to come into those parts on purpose for saving money, and to live in proportion to their income'.
Today Totnes still attracts outsiders, who are often resented by locals for pushing up house prices. It has a thriving market and enviable numbers of independent high street shops. It hit national news headlines when local people campaigned - successfully, in the end - to stop Costa Coffee from opening in the town.
But the prosperity envied by Defoe is much more fragile now. Even the high street has its share of empty shops. When the nearby Axminister carpet factory closed recently the headline in the local Totnes Times was 'How can we hope to find any work?'.
At least £20m of the £30m local people spend on food and groceries goes to just two national supermarket chains - and this is in a town with a strong culture of supporting local producers.
If just a portion of that money could be shifted towards local shops and suppliers, it could help to sustain jobs and keep businesses alive. This in turn would support other suppliers in the town - a local shop is more likely to use local builders, signwriters, solicitors and van drivers than a national chain which finds it more convenient to arrange block contracts for supplies and services.
This week Transition Town Totnes published a 'local economic blueprint' for the town, worked up in partnership with the town's chamber of commerce, the town council, Totnes Development Trust and three local colleges. By supporting local food producers and retailers, investing in renewable energy and improving homes' energy efficiency, they say more than £5m a year could be ploughed into the local economy.
This could sustain dozens of jobs and provide new business opportunities in the town and surrounding district. More importantly, it would make Totnes less vulnerable to change, building the networks of connections and relationships that help to make a place resilient.
Fiona Ward, who coordinated the project, says the blueprint 'tells the story of a new kind of local economy, one based around people, their wellbeing, and their livelihoods, and which better respects resource limits'. The MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, says that 'by taking action to promote local enterprise, and finding a healthier balance between local, national and international trade, local economic groups can take their destiny into their own hands'.
The blueprint is not about backwoods isolationism or making do with second-best; it seeks to maximise public benefit by redirecting money that is already being spent. The partners recognise that even a small town like Totnes is part of a global economy. But they believe small changes like supporting local producers and investing in energy efficiency could create new employment in a town where decent jobs are hard to come by.
The cost of retrofitting improvements such as insulation and double glazing to local homes has been estimated at £26m, work that could provide business opportunities as well as lowering residents' energy bills. More than 500 households have already taken part in the town's Transition Streets initiative, which encourages families to use energy more wisely and invest in energy-saving measures, saving £580 a year on average.
One of the biggest future challenges for Totnes and similar towns is the rising cost of social care as the population ages and public services continue to shrink. Community-based approaches could reduce costs for local people and create jobs and opportunities at the same time.
A 'neighbourhood health watch' pilot project will explore how people can look after each other better at street level, doing small tasks such as picking up the shopping for people convalescing from illness or hospital treatment. A network of trusted local service providers could offer reliable and good value professional care or do the vital practical jobs that enable people to stay in their own homes for longer.
These are all simple ideas that could support local businesses, rebuild prosperity and improve people's quality of life. Most importantly, they will help to weave the webs of social connections and cooperative working that can start to turn 'me towns' into 'we towns'.