Last week I ventured north to the ‘Fair City’ of Perth for a presentation at a Scottish Civic Trust and Perth Civic Trust evening event on the theme of Perth: Past, Present and Future. I had been given the task of looking to the future and especially in the context of retailing and what those in Perth seem to view as the problems they face. Basically an outsider pontificating about an unknown future – no pressure them!
The evening should really have started with a chorus of Happy Birthday, as both the Scottish Civic Trust (and Perth Civic Trust) and the University of Stirling are celebrating their/our 50th Anniversaries. 1967 was indeed a fine year. I could not help musing that if Stirling had not beaten Perth in the competition for the new University for Scotland, then I could have been presenting as a professor from the University of Perth.
Three presentations were made (including mine) and then a good hour or so of discussion and questions.
The introductory presentation (the Past) was by Professor David Munro who covered 800 years of Perth history in 10 minutes. Broad in scope and erudite in nature, as benefits a former Director of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, David developed a theme of the development of the streetscape and morphology of Perth and its special characteristics.
Second up was the Depute Chief Executive of Perth and Kinross Council, Jim Valentine tackling the Present. Normally at events like this, council officers get a rough time, but in his coverage of the Perth Present, Jim laid out a realistic framework for considering the council situation and some of the ideas already in place to improve the city. Inevitably the City Hall proposals got a mention.
My contribution was meant to be focused on retailing and Perth and I did get there in the end. The overheads are available for download here. Crystal ball gazing in retailing is a mug’s game, especially to an audience who know the place concerned better than you do. So I opted for the safe ground of a narrative about why towns and cities matter, retail change generally and then some specific (outsider) considerations for Perth. What struck me as I showed some of the Local Data Company data was that the historical influences David Munro talked about, were still so evident in the present day and will shape the future.
The discussion was open and frank and only occasionally drifted over to the perennials of car parking and rates. The main focus was on people – as it should be – and the need for more people living in the centre and the realism or challenge of the Council’s ambition for population growth, in terms of facilities, employment and capacity.
From my point of view I was not just opting for a safe evening by being more complementary than not about Perth and its future. Many of the problems Perth faces (in retailing and central streets) are not unique and indeed the data (from for example our Understanding Scottish Places website) shows Perth is doing well/better than say Dundee or Stirling. In retail terms it has one of the highest proportions of independent retailers and is comparatively diverse (as shown in our 2016 Retail Summit). The pessimism of some in the audience is for me misplaced. Perth has major assets and is using them. The plans for the future are positive and the place is pulling together. Yes, challenges of accommodating change abound and will continue, but there is a sound basis for the future. It was an enjoyable and in the end positive evening and the three presentations dovetailed well given we’d not discussed them in advance.