Ross Martin: Essential to protect the spirit of place

Home – the city, town or village in which we live out our lives – must be prevented from decay and decline or all society will suffer the loss

PICTURE the scene. Dusk is setting in, the air is beginning to chill and as time-poor commuters rush by on their way home, the resource-rich display of fruit and veg outside the corner store is being taken in for the night by the local shopkeeper. Next door, the newsagent is shutting up shop and is heading for the hairdresser after another 12-hour day, which began at dawn, organising the papers to be delivered to front doors throughout the local community.

The hairdresser has expanded, with a training facility and is open longer hours to cope with demand and the harsh, bright light which would normally be bursting through their huge floor-to-ceiling front window is softened by the condensation, which betrays the temperature difference, outside and in.

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The pharmacy on the other side of the road has also extended its opening hours, offering an increasingly wide variety of services, which is taking the load off the GPs’ clinic that has itself been over-stretched by the ageing national demographic.

As the staff finish cleaning up at the local café, ensuring they have all the necessary supplies to turn out tomorrow’s lunches, snacks and that essential of modern living, quality coffee, the chip shop owner fires up the deep fat fryers, watching over the school student staff behind his counter. These mid-to-late teens learn a lot in this simple transactional business, earning their first wages, while also having that priceless asset of an employment culture embedded in their psyche.

A little way along the road, the staff of the Chinese takeaway and those of the neighbouring Indian restaurant arrive at the end of their respective daily routes to an evening of serving mostly grateful, but occasionally drunk and aggressive, members of the local community. Next door, the local Asian shopkeeper, with his mini-market store still open, fights for survival against the purchasing and pricing power of the recently opened superstore, situated in the adjoining settlement.

At the rail station, as the 17:30 from the city pulls in, 50 or 60 commuters prepare to alight, the majority of whom head quietly, individually, alone for their cars in the free parking provided by the local council. A few take the dozen or so steps across the car park access road making for the local pub to enjoy a well-earned glass or two with acquaintances they’ve made in that welcoming, warm convivial environment.

On a Friday, this pub is the hub for different sections of society throughout the evening, starting with the tradesmen who finish at 4pm, followed by the suits from the city between 5pm and 6pm and then the volume cranks up as the 20-somethings arrive for their pre-town drinks, getting in some dancing practice as well.

This vibrant, energetic and friendly mix represents large parts of the community, with a few locals of a more mature vintage taking up their usual positions on the bar stools, dispensing wise cracks and sage advice in equal measure.

This isn’t “Anytown”, although it could be. This is my town, a place called Larbert, or to all of us who live here, this is the place we call “home”. It is these actions, these interactions, the relationships and transactions, both economic and social, that bind our community together. This place and its importance in our lives cannot be underestimated; we neglect it at our individual and collective peril. Allow our towns and villages, our cities and their centres to decay and fragment and society itself will pay a heavy price.

The characters in my story are real people, living real lives. This international mix of race, religion, colour, creed and orientation is representative of any town in Scotland. The individuals who live, work and play here are as varied and interesting as the place itself, living out their own life stories, day by day, scene by scene.

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In this small country of ours, with its rich, colourful and proud heritage, we are only beginning to appreciate the role and function of place and how we interact with it, and more importantly, how it interacts with us.

For far too long, we Scots have allowed our towns to become homogenous clones, with their core and character being slowly but surely sucked out. Our villages are under threat from a creeping centralisation, as our cities, the big engines of our economy, inevitably strengthen their centripetal pull, creating and then building upon critical economic mass.

If we stand back and do nothing, these trends will continue unabated to the detriment of all. Villages will become lifeless dormitories devoid of any soul, towns will be left to a spiral of decline and decay and our cities will lose the variety in their hinterland which contributes so much to their attractiveness as places to invest.

We must recognise the importance of place. It shapes us as we develop from child to awkward teenager. Place determines where we set up our own home, where we decide to bring up our family. It is the characteristics of a place that determine our life chances, whether the school we attend lifts us up, or lets us down. The community in which we grow up conditions much of our behaviour, our choice of who we are. It is the place in which we live that shapes who we become.

As we rush around in our daily lives, how many of us stop to think about the context in which we live? Do you spare a thought for the vitality of small businesses, and their place in your local economy? Who among us makes a positive daily choice to support our local corner shops, either on the way to work, on the way home, or even when buying the Sunday papers and rolls? Is the vitality of the town centre of interest or should we simply allow market forces to do their worst?

These questions, and many more, will be addressed at the annual Scotland’s Towns Conference, on 16 November, in Dunfermline, a town which helps to define the character of this country. The conference will be showcasing the excellent work that a wide range of individuals, businesses and organisations are doing to not only breathe new life back into our town centres, but also to demonstrate how valued they really are. Locally-led groups, such as Business Improvement Districts, are making a real difference, re-energising these beating hearts of our economy. They are successfully arresting years of decline and seeking to fend off any further decay.

Town centres and local high streets are the places where people meet, where we transact a wide range of business (economic, social, cultural and more) and, crucially, where many of us feel at home. They root us not only in the past but in the present too. If nurtured, our towns, villages, local high streets and yes our city centres too, will represent who we are, and who we can be. If not, they will simply show us who we once were.

As we begin to appreciate the importance of place in our own story, past, present and future, let’s consider the words of Anthony Hopkins’ fine characterisation of John Quincy Adams in the movie Amistad. When pleading the case of African slaves transported to an alien place, this former American president tackles his own demons when finally realising the importance of place in developing character: “We understand now…that who we are, IS who we were.”

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It is time we in Scotland understood the importance of place, and how it shapes who we are, and who we can be.

• Ross Martin is policy director of CSPP