Time for a national institution to take the lead in placemaking?, Prof Stuart Gulliver

THERE’S a reasonable case to be made that, in Scotland, we have undergone two ‘built environment’ revolutions since the Second World War.

The first, immediately after the war, was a response to the destruction and disfigurement inflicted by the German airforce, the Luftwaffe, along with what was perceived to be over-crowding in our existing conurbations: the New Town movement.

These New Towns were overseen between by New Town Development Corporations and the first in Scotland was East Kilbride.

The second – from the late 1970’s – was Britain’s transition from a broadly social democratic consensus, to what we have come to call the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher era. 

There followed from this so-called ‘market-led regeneration’.

However, the fundamental problem some 40 years ago was that absolutely nobody in the public sector knew anything at all about working together with private developers and builders.

Public officials, local authorities, politicians and civil servants had behaved as though they were from a different planet to builders and developers.

Around about the same time – in the late 1970s – a new institution was created in Scotland: a national development agency called the Scottish Development Agency (SDA) and the government tasked it with taking the lead in working with the private sector in order to regenerate urban Scotland and to identify how ‘working and investing together’ might actually operate on the ground. 

And so, the place-production delivery mechanism that had developed in the early ’80s and throughout the ’90s was essentially devised by the then newly-created SDA.

So, here we are – in the 2020s – at what feels like a third inflexion point. And it feels like a ‘1945 moment’. 

The world has not looked this chaotic for decades. Business-as-usual won’t cut it. We need structured, transformational change. For me, three universal lessons stand out.

First, successful delivery must have an institutional focus: somebody (or bodies) has to be given the job of delivering ‘net zero’ placemaking by 2045. 

This was as true of the New Town Development Corporations during the ‘first revolution’ as it was of the Scottish Development Agency during the second – and it will require something similar now. It’s an enormous, long-term job.

Second, that institution must be given sufficient ’firepower’ to do the job successfully – that’s fundamentally about the endowment of powers and investment monies. Crucially, this new or re-purposed institution must be given the power to acquire land at, or very close to, existing use-value.

Both the New Towns and the SDA had Compulsory Purchase powers; although, in practice, the SDA never used them.

I should know: for 11 years, I was chief executive of the Glasgow Development Agency (which was part of the successor organisation to the SDA) and, together with private investors, we implemented a considerable range of commercial, industrial, residential and mixed-use projects in the city, including the regeneration of the Merchant City, the Crown Street Project and the regeneration of the Gorbals, both the Broomielaw redevelopment and Pacific Quay (including the Science Centre buildings), Buchanan Street upgrading, Italian Centre, Central City hotel developments and tourism projects.

We need action, we need leadership; it’s time for the talking alone to stop.

I’m not a planner but – thirdly – it’s clearly axiomatic that good placemaking will require good planners and good local authority planning departments. 

However, I get the strong impression that, over the past decade or so, Scotland’s planning departments have been somewhat ground down, with staffing numbers substantially reduced, many good people gone and morale subsequently low. 

The country’s new planning framework – National Planning Framework (fourth edition) – is unlikely to achieve anything remotely meaningful without a properly-funded planning system in place in Scotland. It needs to happen.

I want to encourage the public sector to be confident in, what has to be, its leadership role in ‘new placemaking’ creation. 

Places are ‘public goods’ – not private – and this confers some degree of legitimacy on strong public sector leadership. Getting anywhere close to decarbonising the place-production process by 2045 will require bucketloads of public money – mostly up-front.

As the previous ‘revolutions; have so clearly illustrated, now is the time for a confident government and public sector to show up – or the ‘third revolution’ just won’t happen.

Stuart Gulliver is Emeritus Professor at University of Glasgow, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was chief executive of the Glasgow Development Agency from 1990 to 2001. This is a version of a speech he gave at a conference on the National Planning Framework (fourth edition), held at the University of Glasgow on April 24 2023 (here).

Pictured: A national institution, perhaps collaborating with an university?, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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