Professor Leigh Sparks, Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership and a Deputy Principal at the University of Stirling, reflects on some of the highlights of Scotland's Towns Conference. The annual gathering of town stakeholders took place in Aberdeen last Wednesday 20th November. Article first published on Stirling Retail

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One of the now established features of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Scotland’s Towns Week is the Annual Conference.  For many years it has been located in the Central Belt, but for 2019 it relocated to Aberdeen.  There are many good reasons for this, not least the work of the BID (Aberdeen Inspired) and the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils to put place and town centres at the heart of their policy agenda.  Thus a large audience assembled at the newly renovated Music Hall on Union Street on the 20th November.

Such is the Conference that it is impossible to do justice to the range of topics, speakers and discussions, so what follows is a very personal flavour of this year’s event.  The full programme is visible here and STP can be contacted for information, contacts or other elements of the day, and you can see information posted on some of the discussions on Twitter using #STC19.

One feature of the day was the showcasing of elements of the Town Centre Action Plan (and subsequent developments) in action.  From the opening presentations on Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and the Town Centre First Principle in action through relocation and developments into town centres, through to sessions on cleaner, greener places and healthy towns, the sense of purpose at a local level was palpable.

This was given added international perspective by two presentations from Ireland and The Netherlands.  Guilia Vallone, Senior Architect with Cork County Council combined her Sicilian heritage with the Irish situation to show how small towns could be made less car focused and more people friendly, notably by focusing on ice cream and octogenarians.  Places need to be people friendly and not as unfriendly as they currently are; and she said it is not actually that hard. A review of her presentation can be found in the Press and Journal.

Marken van den Boogaard, Strategist with Amsterdam and Partners explored a slightly different issue; how to refocus local and visitor attention away from the over-touristed Amsterdam City Centre and on to its hinterland.  The associative marketing strategy ‘rebranding’ places for visitors e.g. Amsterdam Beach for Zandvoort show how cities and surrounding areas and attractions can share the tourism ‘spoils’.  Though it does help if you have great public transport at your fingertips – a lesson for Scotland.

One of the pillars of the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and the subsequent work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership has been the focus and emphasis on bottom-up local processes rather than top down imposition of some remote non-community focused approach.  It was heartening therefore at the conference in presentation and the audience to see so many places and people embracing their local futures and leading the way.  It also means I can end with a quote from Russel Griggs, Chair of South of Scotland Economic Partnership in expressing his sense of what is going on in that part of Scotland; places he said feel that

“the world will not run them; they will run their world”

Edit from original version: link to programme added; see original post for images. 

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