WHAT POLICY APPROACH can support the advance of post-Brexit Scotland?
While our nation is being forced to disappear up its own secessionist rear end through the Neverendum Tendency, that basic economic question does not lose its importance – Scots have to make a living somewhere and we need to do a lot of trade to support our population.
Contrarily, my starting point is Asia. Vietnam, a fertile coastally populated medium-sized nation near to the size of the UK has a growth rate of 7.5 per cent. Vietnam is changing fast with expanding exports of food and construction materials and docks and roads expanding and improving to cope.
Vietnamese family structures and lifestyles are changing too. Vietnam has endless rows of street “shophouses”; houses with a shop on the ground floor displaying arrays of goods open to the street. Above the shop lives the extended family. However, many younger family members now work in new factories, both the family cluster and communal shophouse living is slowly disappearing; the young prefer Western style independent living.
What’s this got to do with the Scotland? Well, we have been through such changes too; rural Scots lived in turf-roofed hovels in extended groups in the early 1700’s. By 1900, around ten families shared each slum in Glasgow. Our cold damp weather forced a life indoors with alcohol for succour, but we also saw many small retail outlets built on our streets. Higher wages allowed villages like Alloa, Dunfermline and Dumfries – usually with their own industrial specialisms – to become towns, constructing new tenements and terraces for working people with nearby high streets. The stone streetscapes of Scotland were formed.
Vietnam, and Asia generally, is collapsing the changes that we saw over two hundred years into only a few decades; their peoples are eager for it, changing and learning fast. Such is the luck of new developing economies building industrialisation into their way of life; new knowledge is sponged up. But Scotland has seen change stall; we see the walls and chimneys and streetscape of a coal-driven Victorian age around us, interrupted with boxy industrial distribution centres selling goods from – er – Asia, and no productive knowledge needed, which offends. Scots want economic improvement as much as the Vietnamese but feel cheated of it. Far too many blame the Tories or the English. They’re wrong.
It’s the planning central state that has failed.
Are we fated to a dismal de-industrialised future? My answer is emphatically no if we recognise the role of dispersed knowledge and how that can be bolstered by fast social change in infrastructure and development. We need to recognise that to improve our economic lot faster; we have to change our surroundings faster in line with local understanding. That takes two things; bulldozers and the freedom to bulldoze. If we want a 7.5 per cent growth rate (and we really do need that post-Covid) we need to start knocking things down.
Which in turn brings us back to central planning, and the proclivity of the SNP in particular to assume that state power and control are the only way to advance development. Actually, it gets in the way, everywhere and at all times; because it does not have localised knowledge it falls into a strictly precautionary view against risk. Too often, central state and local authority corporatist interests take over how change might take place, with over-layers of precautionary planning, slowing it down drastically.
Central planners view change through the lens of a university educated civil servants and a high-minded view of technology or the equality and a social justice identitarian agenda that defines how social needs “should” to be met. The ideas and social mores of the “common people” are far too often met with a snort of disdain or a condescending disregard, so discarding the very asset change needs, local skills and knowledge about how a locality can be improved in line with local interests.
Not all Scots are academically inclined, nor mathematically literate, or verbosely articulate; most of any nation is better with its hands than its brain. Production staffs matter as much as thinking people. We need the diverse eco-system of factories, distribution trades, artisans and non-technical service skills to add value for the wages we spend on other retail and hospitality trades. And we need to recognise that 99 per cent of all Scottish firms are small, large corporates are a rarity. There are only 36 trading in Scotland.
To make Scotland’s eco-system fully fertile we have to find a way to release barriers to that 99 per cent being curious and creative; speculating to accumulate. We have to allow power over change to be localised radically. The key is to localise the ownership of change and pricing powers.
This means allowing unused buildings to have a change of use or be knocked down. Give the right to develop to a highly localised area, down to street level, including the right to bulldoze. Property rights need to be given to united group interests, not the central state’s conflicting objectives. We need to push budgets to communities, not our politicised councils.
It also means constraining regulation should be localised as much as possible, made subject to sunset clauses, and allowing regulatory diversity. For example, we are promised an internet of things, but check out the layer cake of obstructions involved in putting an antenna up on a building in the UK or fastening a sensor to a street sign. A liberal rule-based licence system for players smaller than the statutory utilities (those wonderful people who bully you to have a useless and hugely costly “smart” electricity meters) could presume progress as advantageous.
This also means allowing new main roads, link roads and streetscapes to be built. Many localities based on our long town streets would accept being re-arranged to have human-centred cores. That means bulldozing old areas to move traffic away from places we can re-build to live and thrive.
To get that done requires devolving planning for change much more locally than the local council. The Council’s themselves know that their control of change is getting in the way, but they are hamstrung into a struggle with centrally mandated processes that our towns could do without.
We must do everything to avoid holding up new productive industry in Scotland’s low-income industrial areas. That means allowing ambitious change that lets them develop their infrastructure and connectivity to markets. Imagine if we gave the A76 from Kilmarnock to Dumfries to a Road Trust providing a priced transport route to England.
If owned by those local to the route, it would allow people to balance the intrusion of a bigger road and its traffic against Trust dividend revenues and it would help pay for a fast dual carriageway in support of a commercially valuable growth area that is presently moribund.