The Changing Face of Scotland’s Towns

Phil Prentice - Scottish Planner

Phil Prentice is the new Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, focussing on helping towns and smaller settlements across the country to reconnect with their people and to build better places. 


Despite the continued drive toward urbanised city economies, 70% of Scotland’s population still lives in its towns and villages. Most of our towns are essentially creations of the industrial age which began to gather force around the middle of the 18th century. The census of 1861 showed that for the first time in our history more people lived in towns and cities and our hitherto agricultural economy had became industrial, 50 years later the 1901 census showed that this ratio had risen to 3:1. However, from the 1970’s onwards, deindustrialisation across Scotland led to a major shift in the economy towards a service base and whilst cities were quick to replace shipbuilding and manufacturing with finance, business services, education, retail and tourism, our towns found it more difficult to reinvent their role and function. Once the mining, manufacturing, steel, textiles or quarrying had gone, by the late 1980’s many of our towns were left trying to fundamentally reinvent and rediscover their role in a fast moving 21st century.

But our towns are a living legacy of our history and culture, even the most cynical amongst us will have an emotional attachment to their home town or village, a childhood memory, a sense of pride and identity, we acknowledge their famous sons and daughters, it’s who we are, part of our fabric and DNA.

Our towns are not homogenous and whilst some are doing well, many are at a crossroads. The continued drift of talent and youth to city economies, structural changes in retail where we use tablets, online, click and click, out of town and destination shops, the ongoing impact of the economic recession, dysfunctional property and housing markets, welfare reform, less disposable local income and a fast shrinking public sector. The issues are complex and there is no silver bullet solution but a good start to the fight back is to energise and empower people and communities. Business Improvement Districts are growing faster in Scotland than anywhere else in the world and this is a great start for any town - to get its businesses working together and reconnecting with the community they has come full circle in terms of local, ethical and social.

Last year saw a year in Scotland like no other, from the Homecoming to the Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup to the Referendum, our small nation regained its sense of identity and pride, it became energised and showed the world how we can punch above our weight. That energy is still around and we must nurture this engagement and empowerment. The Community Empowerment Bill due for Royal Assent in June will also provide further legislative powers to assist communities to reclaim a stake in their towns and villages.

Fundamentally places are about people and although the way we live our lives has changed dramatically in a generation, we still depend on our towns for meeting friends, for shopping, entertainment, leisure, history, heritage, tourism, culture, public services and for transport. We also depend on them for jobs and businesses, towns continue to make an important economic contribution, they allow us to share resource and services. The places that we live in also have a fundamental impact on our wellbeing and successful places are where people feel engaged and where they play a role in owning, designing and shaping its future. Recent work by the Carnegie UK Trust highlights the benefits of Places that Love People (see article on Pages 12-13 of this edition of Scottish Planner).

The future will be a mix of cities and towns which are innovative and embrace change and which offer a good quality life and a sense of like-minded community, the human factor is the driver to achieve this, let’s adopt the Governments’ “can do” agenda and deliver an economy which is competitive, but also socially just.

The role of planning in this agenda is critical and I believe that we have some of the best urbanists, designers, architects, engineers and planners who can rise to the challenge. We must look to the long term and be pragmatic as well as creative. A good start would be for planners to adopt the Town Centre First Planning Principle which aims to protect our towns from further edge and out of town sprawl. Let’s look at how planning can embrace the key themes of accessibility, enterprise, digital, living, community and proactive planning. At Scotland’s Towns Partnership we are tasked with delivering the Town Centre Action Plan ( Resource/0043/00437686.pdf) which came about as a result of the National Review of Town Centres in 2013 ( Topics/Built-Environment/regeneration/ town-centres/review). We are working on a range of toolkits which will help towns rethink their development strategies. For example, our Understanding Scottish Places tool will measure more than 70 key economic indicators across the 479 Scottish towns with a population of more than 1,000 residents and will categorize these towns into a clear typology classification which also shows their levels of dependence and independence on a range of measures such as health, jobs and education in a regional context.

This will allow towns within each typology to see how they might improve in a national context by studying the approaches taken by towns within the same typology that have certain better performance indicators. We will also offer advice and support, highlight best practice, show how to master plan properly, connect people to various towns focused programmes and identify funding opportunities. STP has been resourced by the Scottish Government to strengthen its role as the ‘go-to’ collaborative body for information, advice and sharing of expertise around town centre development. Our reach is now into almost 200 cities, towns and villages across Scotland covering settlements with a total population of 3.8 million people and we have links to over 270 professionals, cover 100,000 businesses and 1.5 million jobs. When the Scotland’s Towns Web Portal goes live in April, come and see how we can help people to improve their place.

Source: Scottish Planner, Spring Issue /#161 / March 2015. Scottish Planner is the journal of the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland. 

Centre for Scottish Public Policy
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