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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 06:09 GMT 07:09 UK
Town 'betrayed' by college move
By Lynne French
BBC News Devon

River Dart, Totnes
A calm River Dart belies "troubled waters" surging through Totnes
Campaigners trying to save a Devon arts college have met with the Regional Development Agency (RDA) in a bid to prevent it moving to Cornwall.

The RDA is crucially involved in the proposed merger of Dartington College of Arts in Totnes with University College in Falmouth as it administers the European grants which will be necessary to fund the 25m move.

Dartington's governors agreed to the merger in March, claiming the college could no longer afford to remain at Dartington.

Since then, shock waves have reverberated through the town of Totnes, which is inextricably linked with the college and its students.

An impact study by South Hams District Council estimated a loss of 4.7m to the town's economy and about 120 to 150 job losses if the college closes at its current site.

These statistics have raised concerns with those who live and work in Totnes, but they are also worried about what will happen to the town's image if and when the students go.

The college's artistic heritage has led to the vibrant market town's image as a Bohemian enclave standing on the tranquil River Dart in the South Hams.

'Still bonkers'

On the day of the governors' announcement many of the college's 680 students staged a protest outside the boardroom. They believe the essence of the college comes from its relationship with the Dartington Hall Trust that runs the 850-acre estate.

Totnes has been home to the college since 1961 and the ancient town, which began life as a fortified Saxon settlement, has a resident community of writers, therapists, musicians, and herbalists.

Cllr Anne Ward
People gravitate to Totnes because of its experimental and radical community
Cllr Anne Ward

The chairman of Totnes Chamber of Commerce says the town will be affected, but it will adapt.

Mike Sealey, who also runs the Totnes Pet and Garden Centre, said: "It will have an impact financially - but no-one knows how much.

"I don't think the funky image will change one iota. We'll still have the sandal brigade, crystals, beads and organic foods.

"It'll still be bonkers."

'Lost in hippydom'

Austin Burn-Jones runs the Greenlife shop with his business partner Mike Sermon.

The shop epitomises what many Totnes shoppers look for - ethical, fair trade, organic and GM-free products.

Mr Burn-Jones believes the college's move will affect the town on many levels.

"I think the impact will be catastrophic," he said.

"Students rent property here, so losing hundreds of them could mean a drop in rental prices.

"And there'll be the knock-on effect on businesses, because the students won't be spending money in our shops, eateries and pubs.

"Long-term I'm sure the town will survive and I'm sure Totnes will remain lost in hippydom."

Students from Dartington College of Arts
Totnes is known as a hotspot for creative talent

A vociferous opponent of the relocation is Will Fitzgerald who has lived in Totnes for more than 30 years, raised a family and has become a stalwart of the community.

He is the chairman of Dartington Housing Association, chairman of the board of governors for King Edward VI Community College and proudly boasts of being the acting chairman of Meadowbrook Football Club - a Sunday league division three team. He is also a former deputy principal of the college.

Now an active member of the Save Dartington College campaign, Mr Fitzgerald is passionate about the connection between the town and the students.

Will Fitzgerald
It will leave behind a huge social, economic and cultural vacuum
Will Fitzgerald, Totnes resident

"Many people feel the trust has betrayed its local stewardship," he said.

"If only three years ago they'd recognised there were financial troubles.

"It makes me angry, because sadly I feel they've left it too late to put off the inevitable.

"But if the college goes, it will leave behind a huge social, economic and cultural vacuum.

"Totnes will revert back to being a small middle-class market town. No different to anywhere else."

Originality, Fore Street, Totnes
The town has a very large number independent traders

Councillor Anne Ward, the Totnes member for South Hams District Council, has not completely given up hope of a change of mind

"Never say never, but it's up to the Regional Development Agency if it thinks it's worth fighting for," she said.

"Cornwall is poaching one of Devon's greatest assets."

Ms Ward says the college has made Totnes a hotspot for creative people, including musicians, dancers and publishers.

"I'm an old hippy, but I believe people gravitate to Totnes because of its experimental and radical community," she said.

Resident Les Smith has lived in the town for 27 years and says the students and Totnes go hand-in-hand.

"They are paying out rent and spending their money in the town and we'll lose all that.

"They're a good crowd and they're colourful. I'll be sorry to see them go."

'Iceberg' ahead

Anthony Steen has been the MP for Totnes for 24 years and has been working closely with the Save Dartington College campaign for the past three months.

He believes the college's financial problems should have been tackled a long time ago.

"We've been heading for this iceberg for the past decade," he said.

"The governors should have woken up two years ago and acted responsibly, but it's not a done deal if EU money is not forthcoming.

"There's still everything to play for."

The final decision should be made in the autumn.

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