Scotland: Housing to 2040

On a regular basis I get emails offering content for this blog.  Most are ‘cold calls’ selling some product/service or other.  Unless they are from a company/person I already know in some way, they get rather short shrift.  Just before Christmas though one such email caught my attention.  It was from the Scottish Government suggesting a piece about housing.  Now that’s not the normal topic of this blog but as I read on, it sort of made sense.

The email was in connection with the ongoing (to end February) consultation about housing in Scotland to 2040.  This consultation is about an open conversation across Scotland on the decisions that are needed to ensure we meet our housing obligations and desires.

The consultation document and resources focus on a set of vision and principles (pdf here).   This is a high level vision intended to be ambitious and aspirational, based on a person-centric approach and a set of principles providing a guide to possible policy avenues.  It is difficult to really see any problems with these; they are aspirational and desirable and it is hard to argue with them.

However, being high level they do not really address the question of ‘how?’.  These are the ambitions, but how will they be brought about?  The devil of the deliverability will be in the detail.

Reading the consultation document with a ‘towns hat’ on however, some gaps become more apparent.  Towns are mentioned twice; once in the context of the need for transport to them and secondly when it is stated town centres are rejuvenated by more people living in them.  Quite; but how do we solve this problem? We have been talking about “Living over the Shop” since before I became an academic (i.e. a very long time ago).

It is a scandal that in many of the towns across Scotland there is empty, unused and unloved space above ground floor.  Housing experts know better than me why this is, but this is an unused asset for Scotland.  Also, the focus in the consultation on rural and remote places and cities misses the point that towns are the places most Scots live in, and they need to be the focus for more concentrated living. it is vital that this is thought through,

The other gap in the consultation is on the supply side and the changing nature of the market, most obviously with Airbnb.  Since the initial email, Kevin Stewart has announced a clamp down on Airbnb – and not before time.  We need to make sure that the changes in the economy are reflections of our needs and desires and in our taxation system.  How do we harness innovation to meet these needs and not have behaviours focused on avoiding costs and responsibilities or to line personal pockets? The idea of Airbnb is not a bad one; its operationalisation has been damaging to some cities and places in ways that were never envisaged. This is often because the community has been sidelined at the altar of the personal.

The consultation paper should be read and responded to.  Views are sought until the end of February.

Posted in Airbnb, Edinburgh, Government, Housing, Legislation, Places, Scottish Government, Town Centre Living, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Towns: Time for some good news

This blog has railed, far too often, at the dire coverage of high streets and towns.  Partial data, an agenda of failure, a lack of intelligence and thinking about what is being studied and a seemingly overwhelming desire to stigmatise and blame people and places has become almost a self reinforcing narrative.  Throw in a toxic political situation and you could be forgiven for giving up.

But there are some of us that don’t buy this narrative and continue to try to tackle this stream of despair.  Sometimes it even feels like we are getting somewhere.  Towns, high streets and retail are changing, not dying.  We need to understand this.

Carnegie Towns

So it was good, just before Christmas to be sent a copy of a new Carnegie UK Trust report.  This was on Turnaround Towns UK and provides a set of nine case studies of towns across the UK that are proactively dealing with their challenges and beginning to reimagine their places.  This is the latest in a long line of Carnegie UK Trust interest in, and funding of, work on towns and places.

For each of the nine towns (Cardigan, Dumfries, Grimsby, Morecambe, Portrush, Todmorden, Totnes, West Kilbride, Wigan), a story is told about what the town was like before and what the town is like now.  This is supported by an account of how the town got from where it was to where it is now, including who contributed to this and the approaches used.

The report summarises the wider learnings across these towns under a number of headings:

  • Community connectors – the role of a community anchor/organisation
  • Spaces for the community – the need for shared spaces to be available
  • Imagining and embracing something new – recognition that things have to change
  • Celebrating local assets – identifying something valuable in the community
  • Moving from silos to working together – collaboration as a way of life
  • Kindness: the relational and the rational – emotions about a place are a huge resource
  • Working over the long-term – this is not about speed but sustainability

Some of the towns may have familiar stories (e.g. Dumfries and the Midsteeple Quarter, Todmorden and Incredible Edible, Totnes, a Transition Town, and West Kilbride, Scotland’s Craft Town) and have appeared in this blog before.  But that is no bad thing, as the stories deserve retelling and there is always something to learn.  Others are less familiar and present new ideas.  Either way, they make an informed read.

Petrie I., Coutts P. and Ormiston H. (2019) Turnaround Towns UK.  ISBN 978-1-912908-26-4. Downloadable here.

Posted in "We" towns, Carnegie UK Trust, Community, Craft Town, Dumfries, Incredible Edible, Independents, Innovation, Local Retailers, Localisation, Places, Regeneration, Reinvention, Relationships, Totnes, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fading Glory: the Ghost Signs of London


Anyone following me on twitter will know of my enduring fascination with ghostsigns.  It has also appeared on this blog a few times.  These traces of the past are, in my view, something worth capturing and preserving (or at least recording, though I think some need to be preserved/protected).  They are an ephemeral but indicative window on past worlds.  And if we don’t record them, then where are we going to get our retro advertisements of the future?

So it was with real interest and delight that I received a copy of a new (well, an updated Second Edition) of a book focusing on London’s ghost signs.  Helen Cox’s Fading London, published by the History Press in 2019 is a lovely little book full of photographs of some of the best and most interesting ghostsigns in the city.

These signs were once commonplace as many old photographs show.  They were also acts of creativity and works of art. This book focuses on painted brick signs, as Helen Cox notes in the introduction, a long existent form of advertising initially popularised when hanging signs were banned for being too dangerous (they kept dropping on people).  Painting onto brick, perhaps time and again to attract the interest of passing people and promote products or ideas is a very public statement, and one intending to have a little more permanence than today’s billboards or projections.  Along with retail shop ghostsigns we should treasure what we can find of these.


Fading London is organised into 7 sections.  The first covers prominent brands including examples of Hovis, Bovril and Brymay matches.  Each example is a photograph and some details of location and history.  The next five chapters are a geography lesson of London (central, north, south, east, west).  The final chapter covers the very thorny topic of imitation, restoration and preservation.  When does a ghostsign fail to exist or become a new sign if restored or over-painted?

There are some fascinating examples and photographs in the book.  A few of my favourites (including some I have seen) are reproduced below.  But, don’t take my word for it; if you are interested in retail and advertising history, or simply the past, then buy this book on ghostsigns and get out there recording them before they disappear.

Cox H. (2019) Fading London: The City’s Vanishing Ghost Signs.  History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-9259-6


Posted in Books, Design, Ghost Signs, Heritage, London, Places, Retail Change, Retail History, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Place Based Loyalty

Artricle MR 2019 Places

We have a new academic paper out – on place marketing and place based loyalty schemes (details at end of blog) – and in addition to wanting to say something about it, I felt the time was ripe for setting it in a slightly wider context.

Places (towns) are, as any reader of this blog knows, important to me and I would argue to the wider economy and society.  Places matter and we need to support and help them.  This has become more difficult as patterns of behaviour change, costs rise, the internet offers often false economics and place management stutters along in many locations.

Past blogs have also mentioned our work with Colin Munro and Miconex and their interest in and approaches to place based loyalty.  The initial work was a proof of concept about enabling a technological solution to linking loyalty across independent businesses in a town.  Our new paper takes this further forward and develops the concept and results further with support from the DataLab for the Miconex solution.

The paper, by Maria Rybaczewska and myself, seeks to extend place management and marketing understanding by concentrating on the strengths and weaknesses of the place based loyalty scheme concept. It analyses place based loyalty schemes from the practitioners perspective as it is businesses and town and city managers who need to work together to implement such schemes.  Through this work, we identify the positive views of such schemes but also some of the barriers or tensions.  The benefits are clear but concerns over data management, ease of use for consumers and operators and costs all act as a drag on implementation.

Subsequent to the work reported in this paper, Miconex have been pioneering the roll out of a Mastercard place based loyalty offering.  This has gained significant national attention.  At one level, this is no surprise as the simplicity and ease of such a ‘known’ approach removes some of the barriers our paper described.  The ‘offer’ is a gift card for towns and cities; redemption is in businesses in the local area signed up to the scheme.  The appeal for BIDS is thus clear, but it can also work more generally as their case studies show.  It is in some ways a local currency for a place, usable only in that location, despite being in sterling.


The attraction is pretty clear.  At the University we often have cause to offer small ‘rewards’ for activities or service, sometimes from the University and sometimes from the Student Union.  These have now become standardised, but often as Amazon vouchers. But you have to ask why?  Why are we giving vouchers for an organisation that is placeless (and we’ll ignore other issues here) when a University is about linkages and places.  Now if we had a Stirling town card with a range of businesses signed up, we might have a viable offer.  How about it Stirling Council or Stirling BID; dare you follow the original Miconex place, Perth?


Rybaczewska, M. and L. Sparks (2019) Place Marketing and Place Based Loyalty Schemes.  Journal of Enterprising Communities.  Pre-print available for download here.

Posted in Bids Scotland, Data, Local Multiplier, Local Retailers, Localisation, Perth, Places, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Stirling, Uncategorized, University of Stirling, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scottish Business Rates: a Local and/or National Issue?

A fair degree of concern was whipped up in the run-up to the New Year by the vote in the Scottish Parliament to give local councils the ability to set non-domestic, i.e. business rates. This is not yet confirmed as further stages of the Bill are required. This issue arose as something of a surprise being a Green amendment to a government bill that was then supported by Labour and Tories.  I’ve no interest in the political rationale for who proposed and supported what and why, but the broader arguments are worthy of airing.

One problem noted to date seems to be the potential loss of the Small Business Bonus Scheme – or rates relief for smaller businesses including retailers.  This has been noted as a drafting error by Andy Wightman and could yet be put right. But the fact this has been a key dimension of discussion is interesting. For small retailers this relief is important, both in itself arguably symbolically.

The other key dimension of concern has been from various sector bodies about the likely ensuing patchwork of rates across Scotland and the potential problems this will pose.  It would be a more complicated position for sure and this is a concern for national, though not necessarily local, operators.  Linked to this is the related, and more widely shared concern, that the freedom to set rates locally means only one thing; higher bills.  The example of Northern Ireland is used to support this argument (a claim of 19% higher rates than in Scotland) and in cash strapped times the opportunity for councils to tax businesses to raise revenue might be irresistible.  For those arguing against this localisation, the current plight of physical businesses, high streets, retail and leisure etc show the potential further damage that could be done to a fragile situation.  Hence a major coalition of organisations trying to stop this move has arisen. Proponents of the local approach argue that this re-establishes a stronger link to localism and local democracy, and allows local decisions about what is important locally.

There are a few things in this though that puzzle me.  We have had a relatively recent major review of the rates system in Scotland (The Barclay Review previously covered in this blog) but much of this seems to have been forgotten now.  Rates themselves are a tax from the distant past and can not function as a major source of revenue in our more modern economy.  We also seem to have got away from being clear and consistent about using taxation as a way of supporting behaviours and activities we want to promote.  If we want local places and businesses and not faceless online behemoths then we need to work out what their relative cost structures are and tax accordingly.  And that’s before we consider our climate and carbon goals and thus the need to rethink much of our activities (for example there will in due course have to be a real consideration of the carbon efficiency of online deliveries and the travel and out of town parking our decentralised activities generate)

Local government finance is a major problem and there is a requirement to fix that and make it more local and locally responsive.  But we need to recognise that rates is not the right tool any more for this and that we need a rethink of the balance of taxation gernerally and on businesses.  If we value local economies and shops then we need to act accordingly and not in a piecemeal fashion.  For me, the current debate is rather missing the point; the system is broken in so many ways and tinkering will not resolve this.

As it is the start of the New Year, I will reiterate that all posts in this blog represent personal views unless stated otherwise.

Posted in Barclay Review, Bids Scotland, Government, Internet shopping, Legislation, Local Authorities, Local Retailers, Localisation, MSPs, Online Retailing, Rates, Regulation, Retail Levy, Retail Policy, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Small Business Bonus Scheme, Small Shops, Tax, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quant (ifying) the Past


A weekend away in London, and a chance to take in some exhibitions and meet up with up friends.  The outcome; a great weekend but some contrasting cultural experiences.  Amongst the things we saw were the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A.

A lifetime ago, well 1972 to be specific, my parents took me to the last Tutankhamun exhibition in London.  I am not sure how much I took in, and it was my first time in London, so that was perhaps the more memorable experience, but the gold mask is an abiding image.  The mask of course is not part of the current ‘show’ but the artefacts on display remain a very interesting collection.  A memory this time though was the commercialisation on display. Having to line up on entry to have your photo taken to be ‘shopped’ onto an Egyptian background of your choice is just tacky.  The obligatory shop at the end of the exhibition was no better, being stuffed full of the most inappropriate uses of Egyptian/Tutankhamun imagery possible.  The Tutankhamun sunglasses were only one such abomination.  It felt crass beyond belief.  I am clearly not the target market, or if I am, this range of products missed badly.


Definitely not in the shop

The Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A by contrast, despite dealing with the supposedly ephemeral 1960s fashion, was a genuine reflection on an era and one of its leaders.  (You can take a peek into the exhibition here.) The displays (like some of the clothes) were deceptively simple, but it was the legacy and trailblazing that came foremost to mind.  The use of contemporary film and interviews allowed a real sense of place and time.  Done simply and tastefully, but inviting discussion and reflection.

From a retail perspective, the artefacts of retail (products, labels, bags, signs, invoices etc.) were of interest but it was the focus on the King’s Road shop – Bazaar – that stood out for me.  Its early use of visual merchandising and design were clear and there is some great film of the store, the window displays and the interior layout and merchandising.  Other films show the high streets and retail brands of the time and the contrast is entertaining.  Throw in links to Conran and other stores (Biba etc.) and the cutting edge and creativity of the period were reinforced.  The pop-up shop next to the exhibition (note not end, and you could exit without visiting the shop) had some thoughtful products too.  The contrast with the Saatchi approach to Tutankhamun was stark.


Quant’s ground breaking fashion and retail status was more than I imagined, and started earlier than I supposed in the 1950s.  I was also taken by the way in which in the 1960s she worked with UK manufacturers to produce products and to pioneer techniques.  The contrast to the fast fashion offshoring of today was clear, but in many ways her approach, to democratise clothing, fashion, design and production, is a straight line to today’s global factories. “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone” (Mary Quant). I thought it was a really enjoyable and provoking exhibition (runs to February 2020), nicely showcased by some of the V&A clothing/fashion collection through the ages in the associated gallery.

For anyone interested in Dame Mary Quant and her legacy then there is a thorough and interesting exhibition book available, which includes a chapter on Bazaar as well as other retail interests.

Lister J and contributors (2019) Mary Quant. V and A Publishing. ISBN 9 781851 779956. Available online here.


Posted in 1960s, Bazaar, Books, Clothes, Exhibitions, Fashion, History, Mary Quant, Pop-Up Shops, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Cows and Elephants


During our recent weekend in London we somehow found ourselves at Conway Street having a coffee in the old Welsh dairy which has featured in this blog before.  As my wife said, how did that happen?  A weekend away and we end up looking at retailing. But as it turns out she might well have already been to the store in the 1960s when she visited her aunt in Bermondsey, who was also in the grocery/milk trade, and got taken to a Welsh dairy shop near the then new Post Office Tower.

This shop is a listed building and is a reminder of days past and a trade that served London well (read the book mentioned here, if interested).  The shop, as the photos show remains dramatic, if a little faded, and there is clear wear and tear.  The tiles and counter inside are neat and intact but it is the blue outside that steals the show.  A nice historic shop to see; a good coffee too.

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As an aside, you can read more about the store in Megan Hayes’ book or in the “a London inheritance” online site, with the latter having a good 1980s photo of the shop in operation.

We also met up with friends in Greenwich and took in the bustling market – not a stall vacant and full of people and interesting outlets, food and otherwise.  Just outside is the curved Burton’s store with its elephants and in this case two foundation stones in clear view.  A very nice mosaic tiled entrance is also still clearly visible – as the photos below show.  A nice addition to my growing collection of elephants and stones.


Our retail history can be fascinating and these two examples show that it remains a visible presence (even if Bill’s in Greenwich has been allowed to do abominable things to the fascia).


Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Burtons, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, London, MIlk, Retail History, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment