STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice shares his thoughts on a variety of opportunities and issues for towns.

Phil Prentice: Could a “Caring Town” Housing Concept Transform our Age?

22/05/2018

Architecture & Design Scotland asked Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, to outline his thoughts about town centre living and the opportunities of creating flexible and caring housing reflecting our demographic changes. 

Facts:

In Scotland there are now more people over the age of 68 than there are children.

Average life expectancy continues to increase rapidly and despite pension reform we are struggling to provide properly funded care. If current trends continue, in 20 years time, those aged 75 and over will have grown from 400,000 to 800,000 with the overall population growing to 5.7m.

Half of all young people now attend University compared with just 5% 50 years ago. The average debt on graduation is £44,000. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predict that 70% of these graduates will either never earn enough to repay this debt or make part payments which will leave a balance to be written off and picked up by the taxpayer. Younger generations are increasingly renting or living with parents a lot longer than previous generations.

Migration from the UK and EU is the main growth driver with migrants tending to be younger than the general population. The number of households is projected to grow from 2.4 to 2.8m over the next 20 years with most of this growth being attributed to ageing demographic and a predominance of single person households. The dependency ratio (children and pensioners being supported by the working age population) is expected to increase from 574 per 1,000 to 638 per 1,000.

An age of opportunity?

Despite such radical changes in the make up of our population, there have been very few changes in the housing products being offered. If more people need single or smaller homes, surely this allows previously marginal sites in towns and cities to be delivered with higher density? If housing options for those empty nesters could be made more attractive, (future proofed, nursery provision, pools and gyms, dining facilities, pool cars, cycling and walking, recovery beds, low carbon exemplars) new sustainable communities could blossom and existing housing stock recycled to younger families.

There is an opportunity here to create local economies with health and well being, leisure and entertainment, retail services, care and social support being embedded into these new intergenerational concept homes. And all at a massive longer term cost saving to the healthcare system.

Flexible housing options

If the younger generations are more transient and experiential, why not think about rented City Apart or Apart Hotel models in our towns and cities as an option to help manage the housing mix and to free up social rented accommodation.

And then if we link the two, perhaps all the research and development, work around Ageing and Dementia, disability adaptions and digital diagnostics, advances in medicine and treatments, new services and products would create an industry for younger people to be economically engaged.

The market is not quite there yet but the stark realities are forcing Government to prompt new thinking and new solutions.

Society is always changing and we will always adapt, maybe with some thought and investment we can use housing to transform our age.

In partnership with the Housing and Care Sectors, the Scottish Government and Architecture and Design Scotland, we are exploring the Caring Town Concept.

At www.scotlandstowns.org there is a wealth of case studies, evidence tools, design toolkits, events and funding advice to help you make a difference

About Scotland’s Towns Partnership

At www.scotlandstowns.org there is a wealth of evidence tools, case studies, events and funding advice to help you make a difference. Phil Prentice is the Chief Officer of Scotlands Towns Partnership and new Programme Director for Scotland’s Improvement Districts. With almost 25 years experience in the field of Economic Development, Phil is focused on helping improve the economic and social fortunes of Scotland’s cities, towns and smaller settlements across the country.

Source: Architecture & Design Scotland

Commercial Property: Time for Retail to Think Outside the Box

Scotsman - 10/04/2018

In this column for the Scotsman, STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice talks about the future of town shopping centres, arguing that it's time for retail to think 'outside of the box'.

The £1 billion revamp of the St James Centre in Edinburgh is something of an anomaly; we have simply stopped building shopping centres and the development pipeline across the UK has ground to a halt. The shopping centre concept is 75 years old and there are more than 900 of them, but is the idea of a big box full of small boxes still relevant?

The recent failures of retail giants Maplin and Toys R Us both had an air of inevitability but the news certainly didn’t have the same shock effect of the earlier casualties such as Woolworths, Comet and Blockbuster. Things are changing but ,put simply, this is all about the growth of online; clicks as opposed to bricks. However, it is worth noting that, even in the digital age, almost 80 per cent of retail spend still happens on the high street.

We, as consumers, have clearly marked out our intent to shop, bank and live online and as a direct consequence our high streets, shopping centres and town centres are all facing radical change, but there is always opportunity.

Across many Scottish towns, the shopping centre is the most dominant feature and the core of activity – towns such as Paisley, Greenock, Motherwell, Stirling, Dunfermline and Dundee, where the economic and social value to these places is often understated.

We cannot allow these centres to fail but there are layers of complexity around condition, ownerships, covenants, and investment that will require a strong leadership, vision and innovation. The starting point should be to look beyond traditional retailing.

While shopping centres cannot compete with the convenience of online or out-of-town retail parks, they can start to develop high-value experiential propositions and mixed use communities. The key to creating communities is to engage and understand them and then to develop a complex matrix of emotional, physical, sensory and digital ties that allow targeted and multichannel selling of goods, services and experiences.

And partnerships – could the shopping centre incorporate some housing into its superfluous retail space, creating footfall, passive surveillance, community and consumption? What about libraries, galleries, art centres, health centres, nurseries, crèche facilities, playzones, business incubators, hatcheries and co-working space and gyms?

Bring in farmers’ markets, events and activities, better food and drink offerings, concerts, boutique cinema and performance. Develop intuitive and value-focused experiences that your demographic will relate to. If the centre serves a predominantly ageing demographic then wrap the core retail with health, travel, care, activities, finance, insurance, exercise and advisory services. Deploy digital technology to create seamless links between online and onsite and create showrooms and concession spaces where online sellers can promote their leading lines in a physical environment.

Motherwell is an example where the owners have developed a compelling product. They recognised that local identity runs deep and analysed the demographic, looked at spend and behaviour and developed a product mix that has seen vacancies slashed and footfall increased.

New tenants such as Costa, Pure Gym and Warren James were secured and a range of community events and festivals developed. Better partnerships were created with stakeholders, transport providers and the council to improve civic realm, digital investment, cross-marketing and a much cleaner, greener and attractive family-friendly environment. Time to think outside of that big box to see what small boxes go back inside.

Source: Scotsman

 

Reasons to be Cheerful 

19/07/2017

STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice looks at reasons to be cheerful for Scotland's towns in the context of heritage and tourism, and the need to remind the world of the 'spirit of Scotland' in 2017.

---

Recent visitor surveys show that the weaker pound post Brexit has led to a huge boom in tourism. Estimates vary between 25% and 80% growth over the 2016 season. Scotland is ranked second (behind London) as the destination of choice for international visitors visiting the UK.

And in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, Visit Scotland also predict a bumper season – there is measurable growth across Golf Tourism and the Scottish Open, the Cruise Market, Staycations and Holiday Parks, Outlander fans, The Whisky Experience, the North Coast 500 and Heritage Holidays.

It’s hard to imagine a nation that can match Scotland in terms of Heritage. 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.

And for Scotland, a nation of towns, it is critical that we embrace our heritage; not only that we acknowledge it, but to measure it's worth and value it, to curate, embrace, preserve, protect and promote it. In 2014 the lion rampant roared. From the homecoming of the clans and Bannockburn reenactment, the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, the Referendum and then Hogmany – Scotland reminded the world that we have a strength and depth in character and culture that is unsurpassed.

What would the Dundee of today look like had it not been for jute, jam or journalism or Paisley without its pattern and woven print. Greenock had sugar and ships, Stirling and Perth were once the seats of Kings. Every city, town, island and village across the country a story to tell. Kirkcudbright for Art, West Kilbride for Craft, Wigtown for books, Arbroath for smokies, Islay for whisley.

This deep and rich tapestry of invention and cultural heritage is now woven into a network which forms the lifeblood of our country.

In a world seeking authenticity, it is what we do with our towns heritage moving forward that will ultimately determine a large part of our social, cultural and economic destiny.

So we need to remind the world in 2017 about the Spirit of Scotland.

The one fly in the ointment, the weather conditions are perfect for a bumper harvest of the dreaded Midge in 2017…so get a supply of Skin So Soft!

History, Heritage and Towns

22/06/2017

STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice discusses the importance of history and heritage for Scotland’s Towns. This article was an invited contribution to the Scotsman’s “Vision Voices” series, which can be viewed here.

---

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.

In short, “heritage” defines our culture and society: it has shaped who we are today. The heritage in our townscapes is a living legacy of our history and culture.

Even the most cynical among us will have an emotional attachment to their home town or village, a childhood memory, a sense of pride and identity, an acknowledgement of their town’s famous sons and daughters.

While it is always important to look forward, it is also vital that we view our heritage as our USP, as Scotland’s key economic, social and cultural asset, what differentiates and defines us. And for Scotland, a nation of towns, it is critical that we embrace our heritage; not only that we acknowledge it, but to measure it’s worth and value it, to curate, embrace, preserve, protect and promote it.

What would the Dundee of today look like had it not been for jute, or Paisley without its pattern and print?

Greenock had sugar and ships, Stirling and Perth were once the seats of kings.

This deep and rich tapestry of invention and cultural heritage is now woven into a network which forms the lifeblood of our country.

In a world seeking authenticity, it is what we do with our towns’ heritage moving forward that will ultimately determine a large part of our social, cultural and economic destiny as a nation.

Source: Scotsman

Retail and the Future of Towns: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?

12/05/2017

STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice argues that retail trends in recent decades are not the sole cause of problems facing town centres – and that getting the right retail offer is only part of the solution for the future of our towns.

---

Portents of doom, the death of the high street and the end of retail?

Retail has always been one of our most fascinating and fast paced industries, it isn’t the cause of the problems faced by the high street, and importantly it is only part of the solution. Retail is a shape shifter, it reinvents and repurposes in a never ending cycle to meet the current needs of its customers.

When Charles Dickens penned “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, his high street would have been an eclectic mix of fresh food markets, taverns, small scale tailors and tearooms, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. The early 20th Century saw the birth of the department store, the 1930’s saw the explosion of grocery chains and these were surpassed by the superstores, malls and destination retail that we know today. With wider societal changes bringing more home ownership, the motorcar, deindustrialisation, urbanisation, retail has delivered; with DIY hyperstores, industrial scale garden centres, car parts warehouses and grocery stores larger than football stadiums.

Over the last 20 years we have witnessed transformational change on our high streets in particular.

1995 saw the launch of Amazon as an online book retailer and in the same year eBay created the online auction platform. The growth of online retail since then has been rapid. Cheap imports, online platform developers, fulfilment and logistics have been the winners in all of that.

The internet along with poorly connected edge of town retail parks are often held up to be the main contributors to the decline of the high streets and town centres. However, this is a blunt acceptance which tends to mask broader issues such as the attractiveness of the town, the retail mix, the size and range of stores, the degree of convenience and accessibility for multi modal access, opening hours, cleanliness and the perception of safety, location of footfall creating uses such as leisure, public services, food and drink, transport, health, libraries and museums.

The internet will continue to be the main shape shifter for the decade ahead of us.

But also consider the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 – the stalwarts of a generation disappeared in a matter of a few years; Woolworths, Comet, JJB Sports, Game, Clintons Cards, Peacocks and BHS. Investors nervous, money tight.

Meanwhile, Westminster policy around austerity in effect took 25% of all disposal income out of shop tills through public sector job cuts and welfare reform, the VAT hike to 20%, more recent increases to minimum wage, rates revaluation, pension auto enrolment, it goes on.

This all leads me back to my initial point: retail is not the problem and that it is only part of the solution.

If 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, then have a think about how we can collectively improve them.

There will be some set ingredients and some which are more random, however, the final product needs to deliver on a proposition demanded by the population it serves.

We will almost always require some form of convenience retail, the local grocer. Then there are retail services, the hairdresser, beautician, food and drink, clothing, travel agent, optician, lawyers and accountants. The last 3 years has seen a drop in the vacancy levels in Scotland’s town centres, aggressive discounters, café culture, and the return of family run niche independents.

If we add in some footfall creating uses and tighten up on poorly connected out of town sprawl, then we have a strong chance of reinvention. Lose the redundant peripheral retail space and replace it with housing and leisure uses, bring new communities and consumers back into town.

Concentrate your public services in the centre, deploy digital investment, encourage more community participation, be flexible around planning and collaborate.

Open all hours: how local grocers underpin town communities

06/04/2017

The complex and busy lives we lead demand convenience, so where would we be without the local grocer?

That original town centre anchor and stalwart; the local shop which opens early and closes late, where the provision of essentials blends into a familiar face and a sense of community.

All on your doorstep and very often the only show in town.

Despite the changing face of retail; with the proliferation of edge and out of town retail parks, destination shops and online platforms, Scotland still has over 5,300 convenience stores, ranging from cooperatives, franchises and symbol brand stores to multiples and independents. Collectively they contribute over £530m to the Scottish economy and they support over 40,000 jobs.

Take Gourock, a typical Scottish town with a population of 11,000. Gourock is in Inverclyde, “doon the water” - where the Firth opens up towards the Irish sea. Its development has reflected its location on the River Clyde. Historically activities such as rope making and fish processing took place. Clyde steamers stopped at Gourock (where passengers could transfer to the train) and today it is the headquarters of Caledonian MacBrayne as well as being the main ferry port for Dunoon. Other activities have included warehousing (Amazon) and electronics.

Gourock is very mixed in terms of population age and wealth, and for two successive years it has been voted in the Local Data Company’s top ten for having the highest levels of niche independent retail. In the town itself there are also a healthy number of convenience stores and this mix helps to keep the town lively and engaging. Indeed, Gourock has recently benefited from a Council-led £6m roads and infrastructure investment as well as significant upgrades to the rail hub, ferry terminal and car parking.

Retail is a very important sector to the wider Scottish economy – there are more than 20,000 businesses, 250,000 jobs and it’s a £7bn market. 2016 was an interesting year to say the least. With all of the noise and turmoil it’s only understandable that some things will have slipped under the radar; one of these has been the story of signs of green shoots in our town centres and in evolving retailing trends.

The 4th LDC and Institute for Retail Studies (University of Stirling) Scottish Retail Report (2017) delivered a number of interesting and positive trends.

First of all it was good to see the downward trajectory of vacant units in shopping centres and town centres - very often this measure is used as a barometer of the health and vibrancy of a place. There is still too much retail space which needs to be replaced with more relevant uses, but this is a start.

Then there was the growth of independents: new retailers coming back to the high street which was encouraging in terms of seeing confidence returning to places which aim to be unique and different and try to reflect the needs and aspirations of their customers - places like Gourock and Kilmalcolm in Inverclyde to Kirkcudbright and Moffat in the South of Scotland.

And more growth can be attributed to the new aggressive discounters – the pound stores, the bigger retailers developing smaller footprints and formats for convenience stores, the rise in vap shops, craft and creative and the explosion in café culture.

It's great to see so much improvement and positivity, and working quietly in the background, open all hours and serving the local community, you’ll find the local Grocer.

 

Scotland - it’s in our Spirit

17/01/2017

And for once I’m not talking Whisky or Harris Gin.

Alongside the likes of Uganda, Bolivia and India, Scotland is included in the prestigious Rough Guides top 10 countries to visit in 2017. Global visitors are told to expect whisky, wildlife, a warm welcome and the opportunity to experience the most recent addition to the nation’s tourism offer – The North Coast 500.

Cast your minds back to Scotland 2014, seems like an age away now – The Bannockburn Homecoming, Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and then the Independence Referendum. For a year Scotland was the noisiest and most electric nation on the planet and I think we can start to get some of that Spirit back in 2017.

Our towns and cities need to be geared up to welcome more visitors and to collaborate together to create authentic journeys and experiences that will help drive economic success. We should take great pride in the fact we have some of the best scenery, destinations, towns and cities, heritage, culture and food and drink in the world. Too often we take all this for granted. Look at what Paisley, Perth, Aberdeen and Dundee are all working on in terms of Culture Bids – all of this will add new colour and spark to already exciting places. Glasgow and Edinburgh can already compete with any global city destination – for culture, connectivity, creativity, heritage and hospitality.

The Spirt of Scotland campaign is still running globally and businesses, destinations and events can all still tap into this platform - Spirit.

Visit Scotland also has its free web listing - Visit - and last year more than 20 million visitors used this website to find out about accommodation, food and drink, activities, festivals and events. It’s a fantastic and cost effective way to promote your towns and businesses, both nationally and globally.

Furthermore, 2017 is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

The opportunities to engage with this theme year are significant, given that Scotland more or less invented the modern world.  

From Britain’s first Capital City up in Orkney to the string of castles, monuments and ancient battlefields in the Scottish Borders, Scotland has a depth of assets and a story to tell that makes us the envy of the world.

So let’s engage, and showcase the best of Scotland to locals and international visitors alike, the towns and cities that drove international inventions and created our industrial revolution. Come to Greenock to learn about James Watt and the steam engine, or to Paisley to learn about weaving, textiles and sanitation, Dundee for jute, jam and journalism. Helensburgh can curate John Logie Baird’s television, Edinburgh can tell you about Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, and Ayrshire on Alexander Fleming and penicillin. Kirkcaldy is home to Adam Smith the father of modern economics, Dunfermline was the birthplace of the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

We can tell the world of the story of the Enlightenment and showcase some of the best educational facilities and universities in the world.

We can also show how social pioneers like Robert Owen (Welsh social reformer) developed systems of fairness that the world is crying out for today. The outstanding world Heritage site in New Lanark is a testament to social progress.

It’s also the Chinese Year of the Rooster – Romance, Luck and Personality.

We have Romance and Personality in abundance and we can make our own luck this year.

Let's get back into the Spirit, and aye, have a whisky or gin as the year unfolds.

 

Scotland's Towns and Retail - from Turmoil to Turnaround?

23/12/2016

In this blog for the Local Data Company, STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice discusses trends emerging in Scottish retail emerging from the LDC and Institute for Retail Studies (University of Stirling) Scottish Retail Report (2016).

---

Retail is a very important sector to the wider Scottish economy – there are more than 20,000 businesses, 250,000 jobs and it’s a £7bn market. 

2016 has been an interesting year to say the least. With all of the noise and turmoil its only understandable that some things will have slipped under the radar; one of these has been the story of signs of green shoots in our town centres and in evolving retailing trends.

The 4th LDC and Institute for Retail Studies (University of Stirling) Scottish Retail Report (2016) delivered a number of interesting and positive trends.

First of all it was good to see the downward trajectory of vacant units in shopping centres and town centres - very often this measure is used as a barometer of the health and vibrancy of a place. There is still too much retail space which needs to be replaced with more relevant uses, but this is a start.

Then there was the growth of independents; new retailers coming back to the high street which was encouraging in terms of seeing confidence returning to places which aim to be unique and different and try to reflect the needs and aspirations of their customers - places like Gourock and Kilmacolm in Inverclyde to Kirkcudbright and Moffat in the South of Scotland.

And more growth can be attributed to the new aggressive discounters – the pound stores, the bigger retailers developing smaller footprints and formats for convenience stores, the rise in vaping shops, craft and creative and the explosion in café culture. 

Online retail growth is also still strong and remaining in year on year double digits; but after years of rampant growth it too is beginning to plateau. Mobile is starting to cannibalise tablet, customer to customer is exploding with an army of online Amazon and Ebay retailers, Gumtrees, the Gig Economy - entrepreneurial opportunities a plenty!

Coupled with recent research on turnaround towns from Carnegie, the SURF Awards in December which highlighted improvements in places like Lochgelly, Auchterarder and Linwood, our own towns conference in Kirkcaldy which was about 'Unlocking the Potential of Scotland's Towns' and the vibe created by Scotland's best future town design competition which was won by the Fort William Town Team. It's great to see so much improvement and positivity. So why is this happening?

Perhaps in Scotland we are beginning to see better evidence based approaches being deployed - the Scottish Governments Town Centre Action Plan and the Understanding Scottish Places data tool which provides new ways to analyse the facts and help develop grounded strategy. The LDC/Institute of Retail Studies Report is also a great tool which provides a strategic analysis of retail trends.

Basing decisions on hard data and trend analysis seems to be making an impact and hopefully this can continue into 2017.

Phil Prentice is Chief Officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership.

Source: Local Data Company blog


More than just window dressing…
01/12/16

Sometimes less is more. Change comes at a pace and panic sets it.

Three or four shop closures on the high street becomes a crisis and before you blink the whole character of the street is lost.

Shop Front 1

But maybe the closures were not such a bad thing. Perhaps the uses were no longer relevant and tired. Perhaps the street itself remains characterful, it just needs a nudge in the right direction. So a strategy evolves – this street can become the funky, eat, drink, meet and socialise place in town. It’s a lot easier to fix something when you know what the end result looks like.

Shop front 2

Start talking to your business community, look at how other places have tackled this, who are the new boys in town? Tidy the place up, build on the existing character, invest in some lighting and street furniture, green it up and make it feel loved.

If you had the choice to invest in Sid Cars or the units below, which would you choose?

Tackling shop fronts or encouraging the owners/sellers/agents to use 3D visuals is a great way to sell a proposition and set the vision for that part of town.

Shop front 3

These are quick and easy fixes but in my opinion, where they are linked to a joined up strategy, the impact can be substantial and investment can be stimulated.

And what cost? The cost of despair and decline is difficult to measure. The cost of doing a bit of well planned window dressing will be a lot less than you think.

Check out the latest member to join STP - http://specializedsigns.co.uk.

Get inspired by Cowdenbeath's fantastic initiative to be creative with unit shutters in the evening.

Train Towns
18/10/16

Since taking over as STP’s Chief Officer 18 months ago I have travelled an estimated 45,000 miles. That's the equivalent of a 120 mile daily commute – from Eyemouth and Stranraer in the South to Stornoway and Aberdeen in the North, I reckon I’ve now seen the most of Scotland’s Towns… at least once! (And in case you are wondering, we class every place with 1,000 people or more as a town – there are 479 in Scotland and we have a data model for them all – www.usp.scot)

And most of these miles have been on the railway - it's a fascinating way to travel, particularly outside of the peak times. You relax in comfort from the elements, enjoy wi-if connectivity to ensure you can still be productive, and soak in some of the best scenery in the world on the way to some of the best towns in the world. It’s just as well I enjoy it as I spend on average 4 hours training it every day.

A modern day tartan Kerouac of trains !

Whatever your stance on railways and trains, privatised or nationalised, underinvested, good or bad, the truth is (IMHO) that the current franchise operator, (Abellio) has been a breath of fresh air. Trains are being modernised and electrified, stations are being built and upgraded, new lines and destinations are being created. The real difference though is in how the train is being viewed as a national economic asset – moving goods, people, data – linking people to jobs, driving economic prosperity through tourism. And doing it sustainably. Just look at what the new Borders railways has delivered to Galashiels and the South of Scotland. The doorstep to destination concept, fixing the link (between the station and the town), making the station nicer – the research shows that this makes folk stay longer, spend more and return again!

Whilst the early railway was primarily built to support industry, nowadays the rail plays a critical role in connecting people. Primarily Ayrshire and Inverclyde to Glasgow, the Lothians and Fife to Edinburgh. And then the long haul routes – connecting the central belt to Inverness, Aberdeen and the Highlands. The importance of the railway is significant, and in hindsight we would have resisted many of the Beeching cuts from the 60’s and 70’s.

We need a period of intense modernisation and investment and perhaps – more trams and city and regional growth infrastructure investment. Ultimately we may bring the ownership back into public hands, meantime I’m happy clocking up the miles.

 

In the shadow of the Ochil Hills

14/07/2016

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, several mill towns including Tillicoultry, Alva and Menstrie (the hill foot Villages) grew up in the shadow of the Ochil Hills. To the north of the Forth Valley, this undulating plateau was without a prominent peak and the small towns were able to tap into the water power from the south flowing burns which cut deep ravines into the hillside. Some of the mills are open today as museums, a reminder of this industrial age. 

So what next for these hidden gems.

The starting point is to understand these places; what role they perform now, who lives there, what are the big issues? The evidence toolkit developed by Scotland’s Towns Partnership, Carnegie UK Trust, Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Stirling University - Understanding Scottish Places www.usp.scot is a great way to begin to analyse the facts.

All three (in particular Menstrie) are relatively speaking well to do and they have many similar characteristics. They are predominantly suburban, commuter locations, they have slightly older populations and these populations tend to be well educated and better off.

Both Tillicoultry and Menstrie are classed as interdependent to dependent whilst Alva is classed as an interdependent town. All have a good mix of quality independent retailers, small multiples, local service businesses and amenity.

For the record, an independent town will have a high number of public; commercial; and social economy assets in relation to its population. This will include GP surgeries and charities. It will have a diverse sector base in terms of jobs. Residents will travel short distances to work and study and the town will attract people from neighbouring towns to access its assets.

A dependent town will have a low number of public; commercial; and social economy assets in relation to its population. It will be reliant on singular sectors in terms of jobs. Residents will travel longer distances to work and study and the town will be reliant on neighbouring towns for assets and jobs.

An interdependent town will sit somewhere between independent and dependent towns. For some public, commercial and social economy assets it may have a high number in relation to its population and for others a low number. A balance of people will work and study in the town with others reliant on neighbouring towns.

So what next…

Like so many places in Scotland, the main asset cannot be taken away, these towns are dotted along the foothills of the outstanding Ochil Hills. Apart from the incredible natural environment, there is also very high quality greenspace within the towns themselves. All the towns are connected to a superb national cycle network, Route 768, which also includes former strips of railway and is family and pedestrian friendly too.

So walking, cycling and developing the great outdoors would be one way to build success. 

Taking care of the basics in the towns themselves – flowers, planters, trees and hanging baskets, brightly painted shopfronts, providing services for the hill walkers, cyclists and families. Differentiate – offer something new – family fun days up Alva Glen, more activities in Woodland, Johnstone and Cochrane Parks.

This would be a great place to test the 4 Pillars of the newly evolved blueprint – the World Towns Framework – (i) Unique Sense of Identity and Place; (ii) Local Economy; (iii) Environment and (iv) Governance and Citizenship.

If local residents, businesses and leaders recognise the potential and work collaboratively to deliver, then the hidden gems could become even better places to live and to visit.

 

From Tranent to Times Square

 20/06/2016

Last week saw Scotland play host to a unique gathering; the first ever World Towns Leadership Summit brought together 200 leading urbanists, planners, economists and practitioners from across the globe to discuss how to make our towns and city districts fit for purpose in a fast moving 21st century.

From Tranent to Times Square we had leaders from numerous Towns and Cities including representatives from the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Kenya, South Africa, Europe and the rest of the UK. Developed in partnership by the International Downtown Association, the Association of Town and City Management, Business Improvement Districts Scotland and Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the event pulled together a new international community of best practice from the public, private, third and academic sectors.

And despite the challenge of having very different political, economic and social systems, we discovered very quickly that we all faced common problems.

Over the course of two intense days in Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh, these thinkers came up with a new global approach to improving towns, neighbourhoods and city districts; The World Towns Framework – built around the four pillars of Unique Identity and sense of place, economy, environment and leadership.

The World came to Scotland, not just to see what we are doing to support towns, but to hear how places like Grand Rapids, Mobile, Times Square, Charlotte, London and Yonge (Ontario), Copenhagen, Belfast, Dublin, Wrexham and many others were dealing with the pressures faced by our towns and city districts. The continued drift of talent and youth to city economies, wider structural changes to political and economic systems, hollowing out, loss of identity, changes in retail behaviours where we use tablets, online, click and collect, 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-state sector.

We heard the thoughts from the best thinkers in the world today – Michael Shuman showed us the value of local economic models, Tina Saaby demonstrated the low carbon possibilities, Kelvin Campbell broke the large problems down into simple deliverable and incremental improvements. Cathy Parker talked about better towns, and we had great examples provided from experts in the fields of  transport and digital connectivity, housing, social sectors, creative and cultural

The positive energy and new thinking that emerged in Edinburgh was inspirational, however the biggest gain from a personal perspective was the new friendships, relationships and connections -  both professional and personal, that developed over the course of the Summit. We have created a virtual learning network which spans the globe, we will be able to share new ideas and approaches much more effectively and drive change through innovation and passion.

 

 

The World Towns Leadership Summit

28/04/2016

The world we live in often feels chaotic, individuals display a growing disaffection with society, we appear desensitised to conflict and corruption. A lack of control and influence in a superficial world that crowns reality tv kings and then switches to children drowning in the Mediterranean without a second thought. We learn that 1% of the worlds population owns more than 50% of it’s wealth, that our children will be worse off than us, that we are currently consuming at a rate of 3.4 planet earth’s - last time I looked there was still only the one.

As a child of Northern Ireland’s conflict (I was born the year the “Troubles” started), perhaps this has always been the way, maybe now it’s just how all of this is presented to us via a constant media bombardment.

However, when we pause to reflect, the parts of the world we can influence are usually those which matter most to our sense of contentment and fulfilment. Our family and community relations, the places where we live, the individual paths we choose.

As our world began its journey towards urbanisation we had various champions such as Robert Owen, Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes who all struggled to make sense of humanity and urbanity.

Scotland is now taking a world lead again in preparing to grasp this thistle; all roads are leading to Edinburgh this summer, the world is coming to talk towns, the future, social justice and environmentally sustainable communities.

Over the last few months we have been engaging the world’s leading urbanists, economists and social reformers. We have been asking them – how can we learn from the mistakes of the past to recreate economic models and environments in our towns that create hope.

We have developed a number of new overarching principles to start shaping this new agenda – these focus on the four pillars of;

1: The unique identity of place - support the unique characteristics of each town and urban neighbourhood, the ‘DNA of place’, to engage communities, businesses and institutions in driving forward their future, and address the plural and distinctive set of challenges facing towns. Develop unique visions, encourage plurality and participation, acknowledge there will be multiple pathways.

2: Local economies - We recognise that the scale of small towns and urban neighbourhoods facilitates people meeting each other, sharing information, opportunities and insights. Driving effective change needs rich local data conversational, experiential, quantitative – and local ways to harvest that data. That should lead to open sharing of data and knowledge. Differentiate and create comparative advantage and smart specialisations. Foster local Leadership, mix up traditional top down initiative, alongside new spaces for co-creation, and co-production.

 3: Governance and citizenship - Great relationships with blurred boundaries,

We recognise that great towns have great economic relationships. These relationships foster collaboration, based on shared outcomes. We recognise that successful places will embrace the blurring, bridging and fusion of the traditional boundaries between public, commercial, and community sectors. We can have Hubs to integrate new cultures and citizens, alongside modern governance structures with inclusive, transparent and open structures that engage citizens and direct the future of towns and urban neighbourhoods. 

4: Environments – it is vital that we reduce the environmental footprint of towns, recognise the value of environmental resources, and the responsibility for stewardship. Nurture assets - we must respect and nurture all assets, including environmental, cultural, built, economic, social, human and technological. This leads to quality of experience - We recognise that the trajectory of each town is different. There are different types of place, with different functions. We should support the enhancement of the quality of experience for people in each type of town and urban neighbourhood, informing strategies around the blend of services, amenities and design quality.

These are big thoughts for a big issue. Join us at the World Towns Leadership Summit in Our Dynamic Earth in June to see how we can start building a better world. My Belfast of the future is already taking steps towards healing the wounds and rebuilding, there is hope in bomb city.

 

Keep Scotland Bru-tiful in the Circular Economy

22/03/2016

Scotland’s Towns Partnership attended the Annual Local Environmental Conference hosted by Keep Scotland Beautiful, which is the charity that campaigns, acts and educates on a range of local, national and global environmental issues to change behaviour and improve the quality of people’s lives and the places they care for. They are making good progress but face a difficult struggle.

http://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/ 

The conference brought together some of the latest thinking to explore how to make Scotland cleaner and tidier, and importantly that this responsibility belongs to all of us. AG Barr, the manufacturers of Scotland’s national tipple, no that’s not whisky, it’s Irn Bru; talked about the increase in corporate social responsibility to support communities to clean up, but more strategically how they can reduce waste during production, logistics and packaging.

Scotland has some of the world’s most outstanding natural and built environments, so why don’t we take more care of these assets?Our very own Professor Leigh Sparks, Chair, STP, discussed the important links between people, place and the environment and amongst a host of speakers, we also heard from the NHS and the Forge on the importance of this agenda.

Our streetscapes our home to our heritage and culture as well as the civic spaces where we want to meet and socialise.

Why would we drop litter, cigarettes, and general debris on the ground when there is a bin 10 yards away? Says a lot about the individual.

The biggest complaint most folk have about their town centre is that "it's dirty".

All too often the state of a town centre reflects the health and well being of its surrounding population, as well as its ambition, vibrancy and prospect as a place. Scotland's Towns Partnership recognises the value of good local environmental quality standards. Just get the basics right, the rest will follow. A clean town is a healthy town, a place to be proud of and a place to grow - local government and its partners must see this as one of their most effective preventative investments.

We all have a duty to care for the places we call home. It will take educational step change to address and worsening picture.

 

Stornoway - The Hebridean Capital and Gateway to the Islands

11/03/2016

Scotland’s Towns Partnership and EKOS have spent an extremely enjoyable two days in Stornoway undertaking a full town audit and producing a town centre strategy for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Originally founded by Vikings and famed for it’s Black Pudding, the town lies in a sheltered natural harbour which today acts as a maritime port, small shipyard, fishing port and more recently as a leisure marina.

Aside from the outstanding natural beauty and rich built environment, the people and culture set this place apart as somewhere special. 

Stornoway town proper has a population of around 6,000 with an immediate catchment of  9,000. It is the gateway to the Outer Hebridies and acts as the regional service centre for Lewis and Harris. Connected via Ullapool via daily modern Calmac ferries, it also has regular flights to and from Glasgow and Inverness, in addition, Stornoway is about to benefit from the national roll out of superfast broadband which will reduce the perception of peripherality even further.

 

However, like all advanced economies, Stornoway is experiencing issues such as ageing population, depopulation and drift to urban centres, retail and public services are under pressure and there is the usual lack of focus and sense of leadership in the town centre…hence our visit.

Over the course of our work, the level of engagement and recognition that the town is pressured has been inspirational -  we have had input from the Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, University, Stornoway Regeneration Group, Stornoway Amenity Trust, the Development Group, Historical Society, Lews Castle, Port Authority, An Lanntair Creative Hub and business groups. It comes as no surprise that Stornoway’s Business Confidence rating is the highest we have found to date at 80%.

Stornoway has strong collaborations and partnerships at all levels and this is their key strength; as a small community they are knitted together as tightly as the island’s tweed. 

The town itself has some great assets but they need to work harder. Lews Castle, An Lanntair and the high prevalence of niche high quality independent retailers all create a strong pull. There are good points and bad but by and large given its monopolistic position, it has an inherent inbuilt resilience and many of the necessary improvements in the future will be cosmetic rather than structural.

Stornoway and the wider Islands offer a lifestyle proposition which blends modern living with an Island idyll, it’s a bucket list destination that everyone should take time to visit…and perhaps you’ll even be tempted to stay, it’s closer than you think.

 

Towns as hubs for business

09/02/2016

“Britain is a nation of shopkeepers” is a phrase commonly attributed to Napoleon and while many years have since passed, the importance of SME’s to the Scottish economy cannot be understated. As of March 2015, Scotland had over 360,000 SME’s accounting for 99.4% of all private sector employment. Almost 2/3rds of these businesses and jobs are located in Scotland’s towns.

Many of our towns initially grew as hubs for markets, trade and as commercial centres. Towns are the natural place to do business, they have scale and density, they are where paths, rivers, roads and railways connect and they offer the community and social interaction demanded by business transactions.

We are witnessing major changes in the structure of our economy, retail is changing, the public sector, traditional industries, engineering and manufacturing are shrinking. There is a rise in the service sector alongside low pay, insecure employment and zero hour contracts. We risk becoming the sweatshop of Europe. 

Then there is the way we work, we’ve seen strong growth of coworking, flexible and agile jobs, multi jobbing, lifestyle self employment, consultancy work. Are these the future norms?

The endless interventions by the state to increase start-ups, innovation, entrepreneurship and invention have with the exception of a few, failed miserably. Why? and why have we gone from being the leading inventors and engineers in the world to an economy hampered by low productivity and an over-reliance on a bloated and unsustainable public sector? We are now players in a digital global economy, so where can we achieve a step change?

Where we have seen success at the margins is where a knowledgeable private sector collides with passion and philanthropy; and the public sector embraces, facilitates and supports this.

The eSpark model of accelerators, hatcheries, incubation and pitching brings the best of current international business practice into a highly competitive process to ensure fledgling businesses have the necessary tools, support and investment in this new economy.

The Melting Pot in Edinburgh houses more than 160 social enterprises in less than 1,000 sq ft, the flexibility of pay as you go, rent a desk or hire a room is attractive to this new worker /coworker / business.

The Falkirk Business Hub is a fantastic example of how a traditional business centre has been creatively reengineered to provide a modern café, health and well-being centre, flexible small business space, coworking zone and a wide range of support and mentoring services.

In each case a philanthropic and knowledgeable entrepreneur(s) has focussed on a high quality and relevant vision, built a community, engaged, inspired and grown the community – all with some appropriate and well planned public interventions.

For those of you thinking about embarking on this journey, beware, there are many imposters… speak to Jim Duffy at eSpark, Claire Carpenter at the Melting Pot or Alistair Campbell at the Falkirk Business Hub to see how this is done properly. They all offer a very different product, and they all target a specific market but these are products and markets which are becoming more and more relevant. 

 

Why are Scotland's towns so important?

20/01/2016

Towns are a