Do we really have the leadership skills to progress the ‘place-based agenda’?, Phil Prentice



1. a particular position, point, or area in space; a location

HOME is across the sea – in Armagh, Northern Ireland – and I have been a welcomed guest living in Scotland for 30 years, latterly in Argyll. 

When I dream of home, the visions I see are the faces of childhood friends, the park and river outside our family home, the churches and spires of the town skyline, the streets, buildings, schools, factories, farms and houses where I spent my formative years – it’s engrained, indelible, often intangible but always mine. 

A recent population survey suggests that the most significant aspect on people’s health, prosperity and sense of belonging is their relation to place, ie how they view and engage with their immediate environment.

This has been recognised by policymakers, globally, and the renewed focus on better place making is rekindling some of the work pioneered by the likes of Patrick Geddes (here) and Jane Jacobs (here), building on the recognition that the ‘place agenda’ belongs to us all, it defines and shapes us, and we all have a role in making better sustainable places and communities.

A Place Principle was launched in Scotland in early 2019 (here), having been showcased the previous November at the annual conference of Scotland’s Towns Partnership.

Agreed by central and local government – alongside a wide range of key agencies and stakeholders – it states: “We recognise that: Place is where people, resources and location combine to create a sense of identity and purpose and are at the heart of addressing the needs and meeting the full potential of communities. Places are shaped by the way that resources, services and assets are directed and used by the people who live in and invest in them.

“A more joined-up, collaborative and participative approach to services, land and buildings, across all sectors within a place, enables better outcomes for everyone and increased opportunities for people and communities to shape their own lives.”

The Principle requests that “all those responsible for providing services and looking after assets in a place need to work and plan together, and with local communities, to improve the lives of people and support inclusive growth and create more successful places”.

Scottish and local government “commit to taking: A collaborative, place-based approach with a shared purpose to create a clear way forward for all services, assets and investments which will maximise the impact of their combined resources.”

The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that the things we can affect the most are the things that mean the most – family, friends and community.

The streets and parks next to us. The local traders and businesses we should be supporting daily.

National government soon realised that, in an emergency, the way to get things done was to trust and empower local communities.

Hyper-local knowledge, the grassroots, all hands to the pump to help those most in need… We were good at this, and our society’s glue prevailed. The problem is so complex and involves so many stakeholders that a holistic place-based approach is the only way to ensure we remain resilient.

Traditional high street retail will continue to shrink and delivery of public and retail services will continue to digitise.

Our demographic is changing and ageing rapidly and the relationship between people and place is evolving.

The younger demographic is behaving differently to preceding generations; they pay per play rather than own and there is still a steady drift of youth to cities.

There is a growth in demand for unique, leisure-food-drink, creative, cultural and experiential products and services.

Digital deployments and data driven-opportunities are growing but we still can’t buy a haircut or a physio appointment online. We can bank and gamble, though.

Given all the above, that’s a radical change in a relatively short timeframe. But the main ingredient required will not be the bricks-and-mortar element or the investment or the funding mechanisms; those are the easy bits. The key to success will be strong collegiate leadership around a consensual vision which may demand approaches that will very often appear counter-intuitive to traditional ‘silo players’.

This approach will mean that local and regional partnerships will need to embrace ‘Place’ as a key driver to improved economic, social and environmental outcomes, and they must start working in ways that haven’t quite yet materialised, despite provocation from the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services (here).

It also means that the more marginal players up to now in the Place agenda – health, education, transport, digital, etc – will all need to shift priorities and align.

This is not simply about growth, it’s about prevention, early intervention, low carbon and inclusion. Do we have the right leadership, skills, ambition and willingness to start thinking and acting differently?

Why would a property portfolio manager in the health service shut a fairly modern satellite centre to relocate it alongside a private sector gym and health and wellbeing centre in the heart of a town centre, and in a building that may need additional investment?

Similarly, why would an university chancellor ask for a distributed estate in multiple buildings dotted across a cityscape rather than one large box on a greenfield site at the edge of the city?

Why would a local authority host a banking counter and offer Post Office services in its HQ reception, or a bus company share information and booking space in an office alongside a train operator, tourism agency VisitScotland, and some small, commercial businesses?

The post-Covid ‘net zero carbon emissions’ landscape means things will need to be done differently.

Have we the vision and leadership to take this agenda forward? Time will tell. 

Meantime, next month I’ll be visiting home, the famed apple orchard’s of Ireland’s fair county – not much will have changed, but there will be a heightened sense of fragility.  

Phil Prentice was chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, with 30 years of cross-sectoral economic development experience. He is currently leading on Scotland’s Improvement Districts and is a director of the UK High Streets Task Force, advising UK and Irish administrations on towns policy. He also sits on the Empty Homes Partnership.

Pictured: Home now, in Argyll, Picture credit: the author

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