Empty Thoughts on a Half Filled Glass

BeerBlogImageI took the train to Perth for a meeting today. It was a slow but pleasant journey, ending at a grand station. This must once have been a bustling place, linking surrounding towns on lines which are now cycleways, or sparsely serviced provincial routes.

I walked up past the City Hall, where the outsized cherubs have chained themselves to the building to prevent imminent demolition and replacement by a public square. This could have been the Fair City’s Faneuil Hall if there hadn’t been too much out of town retail and too little commitment to save the building, the like of which will never again be built in this country.

After the meeting and a quick bowl of soup in a sparsely populated restaurant, I headed back to the station, only to miss my train by seconds: an hour’s wait for the next service to Scotland’s capital from our aspirant seventh city.

Heading over the Forth Bridge, there’s a stunning view up and down stream, with one or two small boats chugging along an enormous expanse of water. Back up the tracks at Newburgh on the Tay, there were once 40 fishing boats in that town alone, catching salmon and sprats.

At Haymarket in Edinburgh, there’s finally some bustle. Unfortunately it’s traffic chaos, rather than a vibrant street scene. There’s a handy short cut up to Bruntsfield, built recently at the mothballed Springside development, where entire blocks of flats have lain empty for months, victims of oversupply in a falling market.

The route heads over the Union Canal. I have a habit of counting the boats east towards the Lochrin Basin and west to Polwarth. Rarely less than nine, or more than eleven.

Back in the office, I contemplate responses to various Main Issues Reports and Local Development Plans, which set out growth strategies for new housing, retail, employment and transport infrastructure.

Ahead of those deadlines I ponder upon an overdue blog. My mind runs back to an earlier effort applauding the entrepreneurial spirit of Edinburgh in festival season. The city wakes for a four week bloom, cramming people, events, food, drink, bed spaces and those guys with the pan pipes, into streets and buildings which are otherwise modestly used.

I’m not suggesting Edinburgh could cope with that intensity of activity and habitation year round. I’m also not suggesting we should pine for the sprat fishing industry: seek its reinstatement through restocking of the seas and the opening of a Tayside Fisherman’s College, teaching rope knots to commuters from Newburgh.

I’m just pointing out that Scotland has under-utilised capacity in its towns, villages and cities. In its transportation infrastructure. In its landscape and rural areas.

Times are tough – that might have something to do with the lack of activity on our streets. We need to use and support our assets and resources more effectively – including buildings, town centres, public transport, libraries, streets. We need to nurture what we already have.

Do we need more Tescos and ASDAs? Scotland already has nine out of ten of the UK’s postcode areas with the highest saturation of supermarket floorspace – and a rash of new stores to come. Who now believes there is an under supply of convenience shopping? Time for a moratorium.

If we change the VAT regime to stop favouring new build against refurbishment of older buildings, will we bring empty floorspace back into use? 16,852 new houses were built in Scotland last year. The Empty Homes Partnership estimates there are 25,000 empty houses across the country. That’s a year and a half of our current national housing supply with no-one living in it.

The Centre for Scottish Public Policy hosted the Six Cities Policy Challenge Dinner in Edinburgh last night. There was much talk of the creativity which is spawned by complex social, cultural and economic interaction in busy urban centres. If we dilute our towns and cities much further, run them below their inherent capacity, continue building lower density sprawl, will we erode even further our weak level of entrepreneurial activity and economic output in Scotland?

“Some people think of the glass as half full. Some people think of the glass as half empty. I think of the glass as too big”. George Carlin, Comedian (1937-2008).