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October 10, 2012

No easy answer to the conundrum of Scottish towns

As reported in the last Briefing, the plight of Scotland’s towns appears to be moving up the national agenda.  Work has started on Scottish Government’s review of town centres and next month Scotland’s Towns Partnership will be coordinating Scotland’s Towns Week which culminates in Scotland’s Annual Towns Conference.  For anyone interested in solving the conundrum of the Scottish town that’s a lot to keep track of.  The full extent of the challenge that lies before all these initiatives is well illustrated in this piece from the Scottish Review.


Walter Humes, Scottish Review

Bernard Levin once reported on a Labour Party conference at Blackpool for the Times. He began his column: ‘If Hell did not exist it would not be necessary to invent it. Blackpool would suffice’. The popular culture of the town clearly offended Mr Levin’s delicate constitution. Needless to say, civic dignitaries were deeply upset and much municipal huffing and puffing, of the kind that rarely enhances the reputation of local government, duly ensued. Mr Levin was advised that it might be prudent to steer clear of the north-west for the foreseeable future.

This episode came to mind last weekend – the September holiday weekend for Glaswegians. Blackpool used to be the most popular destination for the autumn short break before cheap flights to foreign parts offered more exotic prospects. However, even Blackpool is too sophisticated for my rustic tastes – I am sure I would qualify as a ‘pleb’ in the eyes of Andrew Mitchell (still government chief whip at the time of writing, but perhaps not by the time this appears) – and I settled for a day trip to Bute. 

Let me make it clear that I am very fond of Bute. It is a lovely island, with lots of interesting coastal and inland walks, a fascinating history, and locals who are invariably friendly and helpful. Then there is the architectural gem of Mount Stuart, a magnificent example of Victorian Gothic, refurbished to a superb standard. The short ferry crossing from Wemyss Bay makes the island easily accessible and, if you are lucky with the weather, and seeking relaxation rather than opportunities for late-night clubbing, you are sure to have a pleasant time. 

The one drawback is the main town of Rothesay. In common with many other small Scottish towns it has a depressing air about it, with a limited range of shops, some boarded up or with ‘closing down’ signs, crumbling tenements and many domestic and commercial properties up for sale (some have been on the market for years). 

There has been no shortage of attempts, both public and private, to remedy the situation. Last year the town secured a £1.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Argyll and Bute Council has a regeneration plan, with a budget of £30 million, aimed at improving the economic prospects of five of its principal waterfront towns – Rothesay, Campbeltown, Helensburgh, Oban and Dunoon. 

Historic Scotland, through its Townscape Heritage Initiative, has made a grant of half a million pounds to give a new lease of life to buildings in and around Guildford Square near the medieval castle in the town centre. A building which used to house the council offices and the sheriff court has been restored to create 25 new homes, some offered at prices intended to attract first-time buyers. There are also plans to refurbish Rothesay Pavilion which the writer Ian Jack has described as ‘the finest piece of 1930s modernism in Scotland’. Since 1990 there has been a very active Bute Conservation Trust which aims ‘to conserve and promote the built, natural and social heritage of Bute’. There is also the Bute Community Land Company which seeks ‘to improve the island for the benefit of residents and visitors alike’.

All this is admirable but the sheer scale of the problem should not be underestimated. The people who are working hard to improve Rothesay have to contend with the legacy of poor planning and ill-judged decisions by politicians and officials over several decades. Many fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings have been subdivided or extended in ways that are neither particularly functional nor aesthetically pleasing. 

Some of the newer buildings are just wholly inappropriate for their setting. For example, an ugly concrete block (1960s I would guess) which houses the library and the community centre is opposite the medieval castle. The library contains a fascinating collection of local material, of great interest to historians, and the staff are both knowledgeable and keen to assist inquirers. It is a shame that they have to work in a building that can only be described as a blot on the landscape. To reconfigure Rothesay in a way that would transform its appearance would require a fair amount of demolition as well as small-scale projects of reconstruction.

In some ways the plight of Rothesay, difficult though it is, is less dire than that of many other towns in Scotland. At least it is located on a beautiful island. But Bute’s economic decline, evident not only in the struggles of the tourist industry but also in the steady reduction in the number of working farms, is symptomatic of a much wider national trend. One thinks of the many grim towns in Fife, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, all suffering from the effects of the recession and the loss of employment opportunities, with the decaying residue of their industrial past still in evidence. I hesitate to name them, for fear of provoking an avalanche of hate mail, but no doubt SR readers will have their own favourite nominations.

The Scottish Government is well aware of the problem but tends to think in terms of allocating funds from different pots of money (transport, environment, employment, heritage, etc) and hoping that their combined impact will make a significant difference. To be effective, however, requires a sensitive and creative response at local level so that the interventions are not piecemeal and uncoordinated. 

Scotland used to have an international reputation in the field of town planning, especially through the work of Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), a pioneer in the field. No doubt there are modern specialists who are concerned about the quality of the built environment, and the contribution it can make to personal and social well-being. Their voices need to be heard more clearly if the urgent task of improving the civic appearance of large parts of Scotland is to be tackled successfully.

Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling.