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Making Hay while the sun shines

Creative Clustering in the Welsh borders

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A second-hand bookshop at Hay-on-Wye. Photo: Nufkin

According to all the text books on the subject, the small village of Hay-on-Wye on the border between England and Wales is the ne plus ultra of creative clusters. That is, at Hay there is one major creative industry going on which sustains the economy of the place. It is books, specifically second-hand books.

Michael Porter is the guru of clustering as a tool for economic development. And Ifor Fowcss-Williams (now, there’s a Welsh name) is one of the world’s leading practitioners of clustering as an economic development tool. Ifor’s based in Wellington, New Zealand, and spends large parts of the year encouraging cluster development all around the world. He uses Hay-on-Wye as a test-case, quite the darling for both clustering and for creative industries economic development. I first met Ifor when I was working in economic development for Kaipara District in Northland, New Zealand. We were both studying for the Grad Diploma in Economic Development at AUT University. How lucky we were to have a world-leader studying alongside us! Ifor was particularly interested in the Kumara Industry Cluster which I put together with local industry leaders who produce more than 90% of all the kumara sweet potato in New Zealand. But that’s another story …

Anyway, back to Hay.

Earlier this week I was there for a few hours. The last time I was at Hay I was 18, half a lifetime ago. And how things have changed, or not, as the case may be, in the intervening time. Time ago, I found the concept of a dull little village perched on a hillside surrounded by desperately rural landscapes of hedgerows, patchwork fields and Herefordshire apple orchards.

Now, the little tea shops, which have barely changed, are nestled alongside some of the world’s best bookshops, bookbinders, calligraphers and bookrestorers. They have gathered together in one place to feed off the combined effect of their pulling power. That is what clustering is all about, and this little village is the perfect case study.

What makes it even better is that the success has not wrecked the place. No gentrification here. It still serves plain little Welsh cakes in the tea shops. Tea comes in little pots. Dusty little bookish types still wander the streets, cardigans pulled tightly to protect from the damp air even on a summer’s day in the Welsh borders.

Some things don’t change.