On the Linkedin Town Centre Agitators group Ross Martin has posed the question “So, If the findings of the Towns Review was your Xmas box, what would you like to see inside it?” Answers are beginning to flow in but more are obviously welcome – that’s both Christmas Boxes and answers.
There are many ways of answering this question as both the responses and the discussion of the Scottish Towns Review are demonstrating. So I thought I’d think about this question in a very narrow academic way; as an academic what would help most in my understanding of town centres?
And the answer to that is actually, as it has been for the last 30 years, very simple. High quality, consistent, available data on what goes on in town centres. It really is beyond belief that despite all the hot air, debate and rhetoric about places in Scotland and their significance to the economy and to society, we simply do not have a set of consistent, comparable data over space and time.
For example what is going on in say Stirling town centre and how does this compare with its competitors and analogues? Is it vital and viable? And if it is, or is not, then how do we know this, how do we explain it, and how do we alter it by intervening in ways that work? Do we know what is where, who owns what, how people use the town centre and its parts and so on?
Now there is data around. At the recent Scottish Towns Conference in Perth, Matthew Hopkinson of the Local Data Company presented on the data they have on Scottish towns and what it shows. Details of the presentation and some of the data on Scotland are available for here. I like what the Local Data Company are doing as it provides a broad, consistent and comparable source of data on Scottish town centers and can be interrogated in many different ways and at many different levels.
But there are other sources which could be added to the Local Data Company resources, including data on footfall, upper floor use, ownership of sites, non-economic uses amongst them. There are providers of these which could add to our spatial understanding of what is going on in town centres. We have data; just not the right data in the right places for the right time.
So what is lacking is not the data, but the political will in Scotland to ensure the official development of a consistent and comparable data set on activity in places. This has to be a national activity in order to avoid local authorities and others doing it in slightly different ways in their own places and thus removing the comparability. Why is the Scottish Government (and the UK Government could equally be brought to book, though at least they have tried in England) so unwilling to give us the basic tools to understand our country? Why can’t they bring the providers together and commission them to pull data together on a consistent basis and add to this the data already collected officially and available through national offices? We desperately need this.
My request may be narrow and to a degree self-serving – give academics data and we are as happy as proverbial pigs in …. But is it really too much to ask the Government to get its act together on this? Towns need to know as much as academics.