The recent Scottish budget announcement providing £50 million for town centres to drive local economic activity and support place-based economic improvements was welcome respite from the challenging backdrop of ongoing retail closures and public sector shrinkage.
We want our high streets and town centres across Scotland to be vibrant, creative, enterprising and accessible. These centres are at the heart of our communities so it is essential that we support them to become more diverse and sustainable. While there are issues, it’s also hard to imagine a nation that can match Scotland in terms of its rich tapestry of towns. Scots invented much of the modern world and the heritage of Scotland’s towns is a storybook of our journey as a nation; it’s about folklore and myth, wars and kings, poets and parliaments, our churches, landmarks, languages, traditions and industry.
We take it for granted that our once handsome and characterful town centres are still of value to society, that the history, heritage and culture of the built environment is too important to lose, but when they begin to struggle due to evolution in the economy we are slow to react. We now have to think creatively about how we can collectively improve and repurpose them.
The last quarter of a century has been one of massive urbanisation on a global scale, much of the world’s population now resides in monolithic cities like New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico City, Manila, Moscow and London.
But that can’t and won’t work for Scotland. We have two European-scale cities, some small cities and the rest is largely towns.
Scotland is a nation of towns. Numbers here are illustrative: Greater London and Manchester City Region are both home for over 11 million people – both have twice the entire population of Scotland.
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And our people are scattered over a large geographic land mass with all the beauty of the islands, mountains and glens and coastline. And unlike most developed countries, the majority of our population of 5.4 million are not city dwellers, less than a third of us live in the seven cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Perth and Stirling whilst over 70 per cent live in over 500 towns, villages and smaller settlements.
That sheer disparity and diversity presents a real social and economic policy challenge, one where inclusive growth has the opportunity to ring true for communities across the nation who can so easily be left behind by initiatives focused on global scale. Macro is often a convenient scale for policymakers – Scotland’s challenge is to deliver micro impact on a national, macro scale. Bringing inclusion to the many towns across the country who have, all too often, been left behind.
Frankly, it’s time for a town-focused revival – particularly given the advent of technology and the need for improved productivity and equity; surely the obvious solution would be to distribute wealth and opportunity across the regions more evenly. What is one of the greatest challenges to our economic model could be the inspiration for a new transformational change in our towns. No longer tied to major conurbations, we can leverage meaningful social change through spreading the benefits of economic endeavour.
With the associated housebuilding, tourism, production, infrastructure improvements, digital investments and supply chain networks that would follow, all of this could create a sustainable revival which would enable our towns to create a decent lifestyle with a job and home to go with it. We should be looking beyond state handouts and art centres in ghost towns, towards real jobs and a fair share.
At the scale of nations, towns are nodes of the labour force, distinct local production and tourism. Across regions, networks of towns connect people and infrastructure at scale. Towns and neighbourhoods matter to the transformation of modern economies, promising value, blending local and global opportunities. Amongst the challenge lies opportunity. Across the world, towns and neighbourhoods are in this struggle. They are the largest scale for community, and the smallest scale for urbanity.
In the Scottish Parliament yesterday, we were highlighting and celebrating Scotland’s small and rural towns. From Stornoway to Selkirk, Kirkwall to Kelso and Dingwall to Duns, the story of our towns is a unique and fascinating aspect of our wonderful geography. It was also important to recognise and thank the local people across Scotland who volunteer in Business Improvement Districts, community councils and development trusts, who give up their time and effort because they are passionate about their local town and want to see it thrive.
It was an opportunity to share and communicate best practice, to deliver national pride and inclusive growth through changing small places for the better across the country. There is so much to be proud of – whether it’s the inspirational work undertaken in Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town, or West Kilbride as the Craft Town, Kirkcudbright as the Art Town, Oban for seafood, Dunoon and Fort William as outdoor leisure specialists, Islay and Campbeltown for whisky and Arbroath for smokies.
This new £50m fund is a recognition of the potential for sharing success across the nation. It is an acknowledgement that the last decades have not been generally kind to our smaller communities. It is accepting of the fact that we can do more. The simple truth is that if Scotland is to succeed and thrive as a nation and economy, the evidence tells us that our small and rural towns have to be at the forefront of any strategy to deliver that.
That’s the right message. We can do more, and the potential for a towns-based national renewal could be the most exciting of developments over the coming decades of massive change.
Phil Prentice is chief executive of Scotland’s Towns Partnership