Bill Jamieson: Signs of decline can be reversed

Bill Jamieson
Bill Jamieson
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WHAT is the state of Scotland? Over the past few months there have been growing signs of recovery.

Employment has continued to hold up better than hoped. Mortgage advances and house prices are edging up. Bank of Scotland labour market data continues to improve. Last week the Scottish Engineering quarterly review reported Scots engineering firms were more optimistic about future growth, with output rising across all sectors except electronics in the past three months.

At UK level, the British Chambers of Commerce has just lifted its growth forecast, if only fractionally (up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent for this year, and from 1.7 per cent to 1.9 per cent next). And for good measure the GfK NOP consumer confidence index is showing a sharp rise in May to its highest level since May 2011.

It certainly does seem as if a modest recovery is finally settling in and that we can look with more confidence to the future in Scotland than has been the case since the onset of the banking crisis and recession of 2008-9.

The North-east of Scotland is enjoying an onshore oil-related boom. And Edinburgh, helped by being a government and administrative centre, has shown considerable resilience in the face of substantial job reductions in the banking sector.

But the world of economic statistics and improving business surveys is one thing. The reality across much of Scotland outside the North-east and Edinburgh and the Lothians can be something else entirely.

In many of our towns there seems to be no sign of an end to a corrosive decline and exodus that has been evident for decades. Indeed, the incidence of shop closures and business drain from our town centres has become more marked. There is little sign at all that the rate of decline is slowing, let alone reversing.

The overriding impression across too much of Scotland continues to be one of decline, lower living standards relative to England and a relentless increase in boarded-up shops, dilapidated premises and office and commercial vacancies. There are some proud exceptions to this rule where local initiative has been undertaken, but not many.

We can say that this is part of a bigger picture of Scottish experience: migration to the cities, continuing decline of old industries and rural depopulation. Realistically, little can be done to arrest this, still less to reverse the tide.

Visit North Lanarkshire or my home town in the Irvine Valley of East Ayrshire and confirmation of this picture is all too evident. It is notable too in some of our border towns and in the southern Highlands.

Last month in an article for the Scottish Review, Ian Jack, former editor of the Independent on Sunday, wrote poignantly of the continuing decline of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, which he still visits regularly. The views from the seafront are some of the most beautiful in Europe. It has every natural endowment making for a resort of enduring popularity. But, despite well-meaning local initiatives, it is a barely unbroken story of abandonment.

Once the favourite holiday destination of thousands from the industrial belt, visitor numbers are a fraction of what they were.

What forcefully struck the writer was that similar resorts along the southern English coast have been able to pull themselves out of decline and are seeing a fightback and revival. Properties – business and residential – have been smartened up, renovated, adapted and improved.

I can vouch for this from a recent stay in Cornwall, one of the poorest counties in England, measured in terms of per capita income. Yet its seaside towns have enjoyed a powerful revival, with refurbished town centres, arts exhibitions and “destination” restaurants.

Pondering why a similar uplift is not so evident here, Jack asks whether Scotland has “lost” its middle class or whether this strata has lost its restless drive for improvement and innovation. For he strongly argues that revival and renovation cannot be left to public investment alone. It requires the individual and the private sector to do their bit.

So why is there such a disparity between the experience of those English resorts and our own? Scotland is famed for excellent schools, a thriving cultural scene and wide-ranging leisure pursuits, including skiing, mountaineering, water sports, field sports and golf. And for many there is the pull of the rugged magnificence of the Highlands and islands.

At the top end of the housing market in Scotland, while there has been a predictable decline in sales, there is little evidence of an exodus of high-net-worth Scots buyers. According to research from Scottish estate agent Rettie last week, the bulk of buyers of £1 million-plus property in Scotland are already located in Scotland – more than three-quarters of such sales last year. Just 13 per cent were from overseas.

In many of Scotland’s small towns, where local employment has declined or vanished altogether, further decline seems unavoidable. However, there are others where this fate can be avoided with a combination of private improvement and community or public initiative. One of the obstacles here is not a shortage of private money or an unwillingness to undertake improvement but a VAT rate of 20 per cent applicable to home renovation and improvement. This presents a daunting disincentive. It encourages many to opt for the unnecessary demolition of an existing building and to consider instead a complete rebuild. But enthusiasm can be sapped by a combination of cost and a planning process that can often be fussy, capricious, lengthy and demotivating.

Private improvement should not have to face hurdles, especially at a time when economic activity needs to be encouraged. And public intervention need not require grandiose “sustainable regional planning matrices” or bucketfuls of other folks’ money. For it is remarkable what a lick of paint or the removal of an eyesore can do. And a holiday from business rates for small businesses taking over an abandoned shop would certainly help.

Private investment may need to await an upturn in economic activity and confidence. But many businesses were launched in periods of recession or stagnation. “Destination” shops and restaurants are not the product of local development plans but the commitment, determination and service-focused élan of entrepreneurs. We cannot change the face of Scotland overnight. But there is much we can do to kick-start small but effective improvement to get the recovery ball rolling.