Market or country towns play a crucial role in the functioning of rural and urban fields. However, faced with improvements in personal mobility and communication, and pressures from changes in the structure of their populations, their functionality is changing with their more traditional roles as service and employment centres being particularly challenged. As these traditional roles have contemporary relevance, in terms of reasons of social equity, economic viability and self-containment, this article considers the resultant challenges facing market towns. Using secondary data from over 200 towns, as well as more in-depth consideration of 11 case study towns, a framework of their functionality is developed from which challenges are explored. The results illustrate the complexity and diversity of such towns and the challenges faced in maintaining their functionality, providing a basis for comparison between towns, as well as a focus for policy development. The results suggest that although there is scope for planning policy to be more supportive to local need, support for the building of local capacity should be more realistic as to the time frame required for local capacity to develop.
Market towns1 have traditionally played a central role in rural areas as service and employment centres. Generally, they are among that group of larger and better serviced rural settlements - in earlier times, frequently referred to as 'key settlements' - which have been seen as helping provide for the needs of surrounding smaller rural communities. This emphasis continues in current policy guidance in England and Wales (ODPM, 2004; 2005), where for reasons of social equity, economic viability and self-containment market towns provide a crucial role in terms of developing and maintaining rural sustainable communities.
Yet, market towns have been subject to much change in recent years. With improvements in personal mobility and communication, the roles of market towns within their city regions has developed, as they have become visitor attractions for urban residents and desirable locations for those seeking attractive places from which to commute or in which to retire. These developments have both challenged their traditional functions and helped develop new functions for market towns. These trends have helped fuel a growing interest in their role and status, and this has been reflected within both policy (DEFRA, 2004; DETR/MAFF, 2000; PIU, 1999) and research (for example, see: Cocklin and Dibden, 2005; Courtney et al., 2008; Dahms, 1998; National Assembly for Wales, 2002; Powe et al., 2007; SERRL, 2004).
Despite this recent growth of interest and the importance that market towns have assumed within policy, little is known in a systematic manner about their contemporary functions and the challenges they face in terms of maintaining their functionality. Using a mixed methodology approach, functionality is explored within this article through the development of a framework assessing towns in terms of the extent to which they are: service centres; visitor attractions; employment centres; housing commuters; and housing the retired. This provides a broad understanding of the degree to which market towns still provide their traditional functions and new functions have developed. It also provides a robust basis from which to begin to explore the challenges which they face. This is achieved through detailed illustrative case studies from throughout England that both show the complexity and diversity of market towns and the realities they face. This evidence then provides a basis for a critical discussion of current policy.
Understanding market towns and changing functionality
A number of studies (for example, Martin & Voorhees Associates, 1980; SERRL, 2004) have pointed out that each rural town is distinctive, so understanding market towns requires an appreciation of their diversity and complexity. An indication of the key factors influencing the status and trajectory of market towns is initially considered in terms of context and dynamics, where the focus of the latter is on the opening up of barriers to movement and communication. …