Scotland is a country of towns; more than 55% of the Scottish population lives in towns and they are a distinctive feature of the country through their townscapes, functions and activities. But as we have said often over the last few years, all is not well in Scotland’s towns. Not all towns are suffering, and not all are affected in the same ways. Likewise not all the ‘solutions’ are the same. Towns are intensely local, yet are also embedded in regional, national and global networks and relationships.
Scotland has had a National Review of Town Centres and a consequent Government Town Centre Action Plan, and steps to improve towns and town centres attract broad support across the political (and other) spectrums. The thrust of much of the activity is about community empowerment, local, from the ground up, engagement and development seizing local opportunities and potential.
But to an extent that begs a series of questions. How many towns are there in Scotland and how might we classify or consider them? And more importantly how do those in these towns see themselves and their assets, potential, opportunities and threats? If we want to develop towns locally then how do local movers and shakers learn about their towns and about good practice and lessons from comparable places and avoid simply pining for their industrial, commercial or whatever yesteryear? If we have a network of towns then how do these inter-relate to affect local situations and opportunities?
It is questions such as these that the Understanding Scottish Places (USP) project, commissioned and funded by the Scottish Government and the Carnegie UK Trust, has set out to answer. The consortium partners of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and ourselves at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling have together with the Carnegie UK Trust set up Understanding Scottish Places as a new way of looking at Scotland’s Towns.
USP (www.usp.scot), launched today by Margaret Burgess MSP, the Minister for Housing and Welfare, is a resource and a tool for all those interested in Scotland’s Towns. The formal launch press release can be found here. Full details of the methodology and approach are found on the website, but it is worth noting two key principles:
(a) USP is based on the idea of data consistency and comparability; in order to compare and understand Scotland’s Towns we need to do this in a coherent fashion.
(b) Towns do not exist in isolation, in most cases, and whilst basic descriptions and typology provide a sound starting point, they can be enhanced if we can develop an understanding of the town situation; thus, obtaining as rich a comparable data set on interactions and assets as possible is also important.
So, USP has used the 2011 Census to provide a consistent, comparable data set on fixed town geographies. This data set has been used to define the population of Scotland’s Towns (479 in total with each over 1,000 residents) and then to devise a typology on key economic, social and demographic characteristics, disaggregated in each category by town size.
This typology and towns listing has then been supplemented by an analysis of town dependence/independence. To achieve this, standard data sets on 11 variables have been combined to produce a measure of dependence/independence. These data sets are in some cases newly available for such analysis.
Together this provides a sound comparable descriptor set for each of the 479 towns, but also allows towns to be compared to other towns – either similar or dissimilar – and allows users to investigate their and indeed whatever towns they want. The aim is to encourage such investigation of the data as a starting point for thinking about opportunities and potential for individual places. USP thus can provide a way of seeing yourself as a town and perhaps seeing how others see you.
Go and have a play at www.usp.scot. Before you do ask yourself which towns you think your place is most similar to? You might be surprised by the answers USP suggests.
What are the next steps?
The next few months will provide us feedback on USP. We already know of other data sets which could be added on a consistent basis across all 479 towns. There will be other iterations and such developments.
At the town level, if you need to take initial steps in adding local data and information, then tools to do this are available on the website. We hope in due course that such local data and analysis will also be added to USP as it develops.
And finally we hope USP will make you think about your local place and its characteristics, not just in traditional terms, but also in how the town sits in its local space and network, and in a national sense in our Scottish network of towns and their distinctive characteristics and opportunities.