Chair of STP, Professor Leigh Sparks, reflects on a recent workshop which discussed the potential for a town data tool in Wales in the context of Scotland's experience of the Understanding Scottish Places tool.
Since the development of Understanding Scottish Places (USP) there has been a lot of interest in both the development itself and its potential to be replicated in other countries. At events in Scotland and when STP and others have presented outside Scotland, attention has turned to potential extensions and expansions. Could an ‘Understanding xxxxxx Places’ be developed, and if so, would it be the same as, or different from, Understanding Scottish Places?
(If you are unaware of USP then check out my previous posts on it – 2015, 2017 – and then visit the site)
For some time this (my) interest has been focused on Wales. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the engagement of the Welsh Government in our towns based actions in Scotland, the scale of Wales and its potential similarity with Scotland at some levels, and of course my own origins in Wales. Carnegie UK Trust themselves (one of the partners in USP along with University of Stirling, CLES, Scottish Government and Scotland’s Towns Partnership) – and the clue is in the UK bit of their name – were also interested in scoping out a Welsh version of USP.
So it was no surprise that finally, two weeks ago we were able to have an invited workshop on Understanding Welsh Places, in the really interesting surroundings of the Design Commission for Wales in Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff near the Senedd and the Bay.
Now I stopped living in Wales some 34 years and though I go back perhaps 6 times a year, I can hardly be called an expert on Welsh Towns and the ‘political’ landscape for towns in Wales. But I do know how we got USP off the ground and what the benefits and uses are. So, with Matt Jackson of CLES, we outlined the ‘Road to USP’. The slides for this are available here and the intention is that an accompanying article (currently in production by the wider consortium) will be available in due course.
The Welsh situation is different, but there are lessons to be learned and things to be borrowed. The slide below outlines the principles behind USP and these have guided development, sometimes to the detriment perhaps of an easy life, as for example in the strict condition about data coverage. But what these principles have given is a strong sense of identity for USP and something that is immediately useable and understandable. These principles are perhaps generic for all possible expansions of USP, though the exact definitions of size of town or data to be used may have to be altered depending on availability and intention. The heart of USP – typology, interaction model, data visualisation – is common (probably).
Others can say what they thought of the workshop as a whole and the interactions (and Gina Wilson from Carnegie UK Trust has already done that here). For me, time flew and the engagement in ideas and discussion was palpable. There were however some jarring notes from my Scottish perspective:
- Some (not all thankfully) felt our insistence in Scotland on avoiding league tables and pejorative labelling reduced the need for places to strive to improve;
- Some were wedded absolutely to the idea of the local authority being the unit of analysis above all else;
- The desire for any tool to provide solutions (as opposed to kicking off conversations) also featured in some quarters.
Overall though there did seem to be a sense of interest in an Understanding Welsh Places (UWP) which would open up conversation, stopped blaming people and which was easy to use and explore, and which critically focused on the town (place, community) as the unit of debate.
How UWP would differ from USP is a question for Wales, if it goes ahead. The choices we made in developing USP (size and number of towns, range of data, boundaries, more visual than verbal tool etc.) may not be exactly the right ones for Wales. But, and even if nothing happens now, which we sincerely hope is not the case, at least we triggered a series of conversations and discussions, which will be taken forward to the betterment of Welsh places.
To quote from the two reports which set the scene for USP:
“There is a real absence of good, reliable, consistent data on Scotland’s town centres. All towns and town centres need firstly to understand themselves through a systematic, replicative, efficient and affordable data collection and benchmarking exercise. How else are we meant to know what is going on and what works and what does not? In an era of “evidence based policymaking” this is unacceptable. Indeed, it begs the question what local authorities and central government are basing their decisions on? Good data that is routinely and systemically analysed is a critical first step for local government that should be centrally funded by the Scottish Government.” (p3)
- Scotland’s Towns and Town Centres: Creating Confidence, Changing Futures. Scottish Towns Policy Group, January 2011.
“We accept that there is a need for action to be based on a clear understanding of the health of our town centres. The evidence here is patchy and inconsistent and the different types of data need brought together to present a useful overall picture. We recommend a model is developed, through a demonstration project, showing how data can be collected, presented and shared.” (p5)
- National Review of Town Centres External Advisory Group Report, 2013.
The way we use data and think about towns, places or communities has to change or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Understanding Scottish Places has challenged conventional perceptions; we hope Understanding Welsh Places can join us.
Source: Stirling Retail