Holyrood Events (@HolyroodEvents) have invited me to speak at a conference this week. As can be seen from the poster above, the conference is on “Scotland – The Recovery”. They have asked me to speak on the issue of towns and ouir recent report on the “The Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”.
The focus of the conference starts off with recovery from Covid, My presentation though is aimed at reflecting what we mean by Recovery, from what and for whom? In that sense it is similar to my thoughts about resilience presented earlier in this blog – who benefits from returning to the previous situation? (build back better – ok, but for whom and who decides this?). I thus argue that we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take radical steps to meet covid recovery, climate change and our deep inequalities. This though will require some brave and ambitious thinking.
In my normal way, I provide a pdf of the overheads I will use below, and whilst I tend to speak “off the cuff” the text below is roughly a summary of what I am saying.
“March 2020 was the month that Scotland changed, as Covid took hold and lockdown become a reality. The First Minister described the time during March as Scotland facing the ‘Biggest Challenge of our Lifetimes’ and one that where ‘Life Would Change Significantly’.
This presentation argues that those words apply just as much to our towns and cities as they do to meeting Covid, and even more so now as our towns and communities seek to recover, not only from Covid but from our 60 years of neglect and harm.
In the decade or so since the Fraser Review, we have taken a range of positive steps to improving our town centres, most recently in town centre regeneration, community wealth building, 20 minute neighbourhoods and the investment in the place based investment programme. These follow innovations in Town Centre First and the Place Principle.
The key question though is whether this is enough given the issues of Covid recovery, the climate change emergency and the focus on health, wellbeing and inequalities that Scotland requires. All these have impacted communities and towns and town centres.
This is why in the review of the Town Centre Action Plan, which I chaired for Scottish Government, we asked what more we need to do for town centres, and as pertinently, what we need to stop supporting as those activities are damaging town centres. This is why in order to deliver our vision we suggested three areas of recommendations. Two of these (policy, plan, data and focused funding on specific initiatives) follow previous patterns, but deepen. strengthen and further align all the good work underway (though there is more of an ask on the types and level of funding). The third, a radical rethinking of tax and funding is more controversial and challenging.
We know that the economy has changed as it has digitised. Inequalities across Scotland have been maintained and amplified despite decades of work. We also know the climate emergency is here, now.
Towns can help Scotland meet the challenges of these big issues. They are when done well, anti-disaggregation and decentralisation. They can provide the focus for local, more socially and economically sustainable and equitable communities. Town centres in particular also have embedded resources on which to build, both in terms of buildings and access, but also in making good places. They are more sustainable than the alternatives. Yet, we undervalue and under-support them in the main.
We will not succeed by doing the same things that we have for the last 60 years, only a little less badly. If we don’t change course radically then it will become too late to collectively address many of our complex problems. This requires large behaviour changes of organisations, governments, and people. If we don’t organise ourselves to achieve this, then we are a tipping rather than a turning point and our recovery will not be what the country needs.
We need to recover, not only from Covid, but from the harms we have inflicted on our towns and communities. Only then will we have the places that people can be proud of and that meet the challenges we face in terms of people, the planet and the economy. Towns are part of the solution and can deliver so much more, if given a fair chance.”