Thinking about IHBC’s 2020 Brighton School theme? See the Bennett Institute Project on ‘Townscapes: Scotland’s mixed fortunes’

Compared to their counterparts across Britain, some might say Scotland’s towns have had mixed success and deprivation in recent years, and Benjamin Goodair comments on the main findings of the latest Bennett Institute Townscapes report, this time analysing the welfare of towns in Scotland.

The Bennett Institute writes:

Galashiels will be the permanent home of the Great Tapestry of Scotland – one of the world’s largest tapestries, which launched in 2013 and covers 12,000 years of Scottish history. This tapestry, and an accompanying £6.7m exhibition, is expected to draw an extra 50,000 people per year to Galashiels – a small town with a population of 15,000 residents. Across Scotland, towns are dealing with the challenges associated with long-term economic and demographic trends in all sorts of ways. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is one project among many which is designed to revive Scotland’s town centres.

As part of our Townscapes project, here at the Bennett Institute, we are publishing a series of papers which analyse the economic fortunes of towns across Britain’s major regions and nations. Our latest report focuses on Scotland’s towns and changes to their economies, populations and public services.

Scotland’s towns have experienced mixed fortunes, and, not surprisingly, a wide-ranging debate about how these places are doing and what government in Scotland should do for them, has been happening in recent years.

One of our headline findings is that three quarters of Scottish towns have more household deprivation than the average British town. However, the changes that have happened to town economies over the last decade generally match those in England and Wales, with very few towns standing out as exceptional for their speed of improvement or decline.

One of the ways that Scottish towns appear to have succeeded in relative terms concerns the rising number of public services provided in towns between 2011 and 2018. 12 of the top 20 British towns for changes in public services are in Scotland. In terms of services such as the number of police stations, which are generally declining across Britain, Scottish towns tend to have lost fewer than counterparts elsewhere. Meanwhile in services that are growing, for instance the number of bus stops, those in Scotland generally have higher increases.

Dunfermline stood out in our analysis and is, in some ways, a model of success. The town experienced the largest population growth of any town in Britain between 2001 and 2011, and over the last decade it was the third most economically improving town in Britain. It also has below-average levels of household deprivation and a relatively high number of jobs provided within the town’s boundary. Furthermore, it was fourth best in the whole of Scotland for changes to the numbers of public services between 2011 and 2018. A combination of industrial heritage, an adaptive economy and the town’s role as a commuter dormitory for professionals working in Edinburgh, has supported a large increase in the town’s population and service footprint in recent years.

Scotland’s townscape mirrors some of the wider findings of our analysis of towns’ performance across the whole of Britain. As elsewhere, those places that are located furthest from its largest cities have their own resilient local economies upon which to rely. In this case, almost all of the ‘residential towns’ – those with the lowest jobs per resident – are located within the central belt of the country.

As Scotland’s government proposes to convene a citizen’s assembly to answer the question ‘what kind of country are we seeking to build?’, there is no better time for its policy community to look more deeply at the spatial inequalities which are apparent across the nation, and to examine how towns are doing. The Assembly will sit six times, the first took place last week, however, its meetings are confined to Glasgow and Edinburgh. How to develop a vision of the country’s future which speaks to small towns, and other cities, is one of the most important and challenging questions which Scotland faces.

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