How to change Scotland's small towns – avoid big government

How to change Scotland's small towns – avoid big government

by Eben Wilson
article from Tuesday 26, June, 2018

SOME YEARS AGO I was asked at a meeting of local councillors how we could revive Scotland’s small towns. At the time, I had to admit that I did not know, but for some time now I have been thinking about that exchange. There must be a way.

It’s true that all towns are different so there cannot be one plan to meet all needs – trying this would end up satisfying none – but there is a particularly Scottish context here, we are a nation with many small towns that are struggling.  Progress seems absent. 

Jamie Greene’s article in Think Scotland brought this to mind as he lamented the state of the roads in the West of Scotland.  How has our wealthy wee nation got here?

There are a couple of striking examples local to me in South Ayrshire.  The local roads around Kirkmichael, Dalrymple, Crosshill and Dailly are dodgems courses.  Haphazard patching is done, but often only as a result of phone calls and cajoling. While we may think there is a plan, there isn’t in any practical sense; there is make do and mend all around. 

But this is merely a symptom of a larger malaise; not much changes because the mechanisms that allow change to happen have become choked. And I think it is in that sclerosis that the answer lies as to what Scotland needs to do with its small towns. 

Let me illustrate through an example. The small town of Maybole, eight miles from Ayr, is suffering from a serious case of planning blight.  It has a narrow high street with narrow pavements. The roadway is a trunk route, carrying heavy goods vehicles from Stranraer northwards.  It’s a genuinely unpleasant High Street to walk in, and the decrepit properties and lack of activity tell the story of a once pretty town reduced to a pass-through place with the only change its gradual deterioration. 

It’s been 50 years since a bypass was first mooted. Eventuallya lengthy reportpublished thirteen years ago in 2005 described and analysed the need; consultations followed, plus a Reporter’s enquiry, with the contract process started last year, and the tender is due for sign-off of the £37 million spend by the end of this year. 

So that’s three years more than a decade to plan how to spend as much money as is spent by Scotland’s social security system in just over 14 hours.  Why?

If you read the detail of this saga it is notable that the concern of the planners is focussed almost entirely on what downsides may have to be ameliorated, not the upside of the new road for the town. The rubric reeks of multiple agendas; the environment, land preservation, other community needs and disruptions, transport and resource strategies and so on.

The key point here is that all of these agendas have lobbying factions within them. Across Scotland, well organised opinion formers seek to interfere with change. Most of them work a long way from Maybole, often working on the public purse, paid to work on the detail of the planning process and dedicated to being a champion of anything that could be detrimental to their factional interest about the proposed change. They use the process of planning development to crush development by corrupting that process. 

Their motives may be to do good, but they do not weigh the justice of their views with the injustice of leaving the locality of Maybole in a stasis of noisy, smelly, dangerous degradation. 

This is central planning at work. The overheads of the politicisation of a local decision have taken root in interminable delays that, in turn, force the bureaucracy to avoid taking risks that might offend someone. Process has trumped practicality at every turn. Discretion without real knowledge directs all actions.

And the local population suffers – for years if not decades.

For me, this is where real change has to be engineered – in the development process itself.  There are plenty of people in Maybole who can make good decisions. In Scotland, however, the centre has a huge distrust of local initiative. I have heard many in Edinburgh’s circles who say small town folk could not cope with dealing with the complexity of new developments. 

That’s a ridiculous stance to take, for two reasons. First, the people of Maybole are not going to go out with a pick and shovel and build their own by-pass, they will contract that work just as central government does.  Second, it’s a self-fulfilling opinion; local people will never learn to deal with complex community issues if they are never allowed to try.  

It’s that latter sentiment that, in my view, is the key to resolving the sad decline of Scotland’s small towns. We must find a way of making the money talk through local initiative. At present, small towns are supplicants to the centre – expected to be grateful for the grand designs brought to them by the powers-that-be.  

This ignores what those grand designs are; rule bound, process driven and almost always unimaginative. A recent meeting was held in Maybole about how the town might be improved after the new by-pass is built; townsfolk were staggered to hear that a main concern of the local planners was how to get delivery lorries into the High Street to service local shops; the very same size of lorries that have demolished the amenity of that street and lead to the desire for a by-pass!  But somewhere there is a handbook of town planning that emphasises the need to deliver retail supplies efficiently in the way that the streetscape is designed.  Once again, the uniformity of “inside-the-box” thinking steamrollers any imaginative use of town space. 

The paucity of this thinking is shown up by a comparison with France, where small towns across the nation have been re-designed to cope with our motorised age by ensuring that central squares and nearby narrow streets are reserved for humans as much as possible. Crucially, that means not only barring vehicles from historic streets, but actually bull-dozing buildings in order to re-shape the central locality and create new focal points and gathering places. 

Much of Scotland is like Maybole, long narrow towns without real centres and in that sense difficult to re-model to create a focal centre place.  But where this can be done, the advantages of such an approach would be far more productive than the cautious hesitations that characterise present development planning.  The role of government should not be in development planning at all; but merely in ensuring that connected party contracting is avoided within local initiatives, and that justice is retained in any compulsory purchasing required. These are oversight actions; the practical actions that allow change to happen need to be left to localised initiative.

It is time to be bold, and that means discarding the centralised approach to planning; what Scotland needs is a bit of mess and muddle. By all means use incentives to nudge local people into taking practical solutions rather than indulging in fancies, but it is time that local communities were given direct grants, kept away from the local councils, for community streetscapes that they decide to engineer.  

I think we would all be surprised how talented Scots can be when released to use their creative energy to improve the places they live and love. Even if they have to knock a few buildings down to start afresh. 

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