Monthly Archives

May 2023

“So many Welsh towns are run by stupid people”.

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It’s the world-famous Hay Festival this week when the small Welsh border town becomes the centrepiece for literary A-listers, creatives and politicians. And it’s about this time of year that this provocative quote from Richard Booth always springs to mind. I’m interested in Booth because he was a renowned British eccentric and pioneer of town regeneration – a placemaker as we now call it. His quirkiness and detested for bureaucracy were at the heart of his methods when he turned around the fortunes of Hay on Wye, a pretty but otherwise unremarkable Welsh border town.

Hay is often referenced as an example of successful town regeneration and for the obvious reasons of becoming a world famous Town of Books and a centre for the secondhand book trade. It’s also equally famous for Hay Literature Festival founded in 1988 – although Booth was said to have resented the festival because it was worlds apart from the dusty jumbled book shops he had created.

I’ve been visiting Hay all my life, rarely during the festival, but often on visits to see family or as a perfect coffee stop on a long cycle through the Black Mountains. I’ve observed Hay as an example of personality-led regeneration frequently overlooked in contemporary ideas yet can be the vital ingredient for some otherwise ordinary towns. Booth appears to have been a genuine visionary, entrepreneurial, brand aware, deep-pocketed, and strong-willed with his roots in the community and ability to lead others.

Booth was no politician – “policies not politicians” was another of his anarchic phrases. He built a following through unconventional means buying up cheap empty buildings during the 1960s and 1970s, opening bookshops, and forging relationships with employees that led to them opening bookshops of their own. At its height, the Hay had 30 secondhand bookshops whilst not quite so many remain today.

Booth became a pioneer for the British high streets several decades before Portas or Grimsey. The experience of seeing faceless shopping malls on a book buying trip to the US apparently made him fear the future of market towns. His vision was founded on tradition, opposing modernisation and creating a vibrant, local economy free of big-brand. Sounds familiar?

Arguably one of Wales’s and the UK’s finest placemakers, Booth became an almost accidental expert in regeneration and exporter of ideas creating a model copied in over 50 towns across the world. He singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of Hay leading a highly effective global publicity with whacky and wonderfully eye-catching campaigns. In April 1977, he famously declared his hometown a sovereign independent state and made himself king.

Booth’s property-led spotlight-seeking self-publicist and non-conformist approach might also have something to do with the tolerant and experimental influences unique to the 1960’s and early 1970’s and therefore are unlikely to be fully repeated. Today, Hay thrives as a tourism hot spot throughout the year, although the town has a more boutique than book town feel to it. At a time of increasing sameness and uniformity on the high street its widely recognised that the future of town centres is about being distinctive, memorable, entertaining and independent – just like Booth’s vision of Hay.


Why some towns in Wales are successful and others need regeneration

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The BBC Politics Wales investigated the Welsh Government’s new Policy Statement for town centres and why some towns in Wales are successful and others need regenerating. The WG Minister Julie James explains the new statement and  BBC’s James Williams asked me the questions about the challenges faced by town centres and how to reinvigorate them.

5 min interview with Owen

The full feature is available from iPlayer  (11.30 mins)(07/05/23)


The first ten years

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Ten years ago, I started Owen Davies Consulting with a simple aim: to help make places more memorable, liveable and viable.

Looking back, it was the right opportunity at the right time (and a bit of luck) that made it happen. I had spent many hours sketching out an idea for a purpose driven, creative, and bespoke consultancy – frustrated with the multi-national consultancy I was with at the time. And I had a couple of key clients that were also interested in the idea and willing to stick with me if I decided to take the plunge. The break came in May 2013, with my sketchy business plan, we launched.

I haven’t looked back – enjoying every opportunity to build a purpose driven team team and blending our planning, economic, regeneration and design skills. Plus, helping turnaround the fortunes of many types of places – buildings, streets, neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and on a bigger scale supporting government at local and regional levels to devise their strategies.

So, our first ten years have seen Owen Davies Consulting grow into a small but vastly experienced consultancy. I’ve picked up some accolades along the way such as becoming an expert for the Governments High Street Task Force and Fellow of the Institute of Place Management. Sometimes it feels like we punch above our weight as we deliver major initiatives and landmark projects across the UK – the latest helping Wrexham to gain its city status (enjoying its global fame I had to mention Wrexham !)

Through our work, we have also tried to be socially engaged, environmentally conscious practitioners doing our bit to help regenerate where we live, work and visit. Whether it’s been investing our own time and funds into repurposing an empty town centre property, providing the experience for budding students or volunteering with a heritage trust to help restore an amazing historic building.

It feels like I’ve been thinking about memorable, liveable and viable places long before it became branded as ‘placemaking’. And it’s all about sticking to what you know, doing your research, speaking to the right people and being clear how your ideas can make a difference.

Ideas + execution = impact

So, as we pass our ten-year milestone it’s time to thank the clients that trusted us with their briefs and their budgets. To the politicians, businesses, organisations and communities that have welcomed us to their town, city or neighbourhood. Thank you for your time, wisdom, and honesty. And to the team and range of experts we have worked with – urban designers, economists, engineers, artists and creatives – we are grateful for the new perspectives that you brought and the ideas that we have created together.

Here’s to another ten years. Here’s to regeneration and placemaking. And here’s to taking the plunge and a bit of luck.


PS – why not read about the projects we have been up to in our regular website news posts

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