12 December 2016
This article was originally published in Urban Realm
magazine, Winter 2016/17 issue.
By John Pelan, Director, Scottish Civic
In the run-up to next year's local elections in Scotland how
many times will the built environment, old and new, be
mentioned? I hazard a guess that it won't figure much in the
campaigns of prospective councillors and that health, education,
the economy and provision of local services and repeated cuts to
funding will dominate. Architecture, planning,
development and the historic environment are not generally seen as
I think this is short-sighted though. On a recent
awards-judging trip to Saltcoats in North Ayrshire to visit the
newly refurbished Town Hall, I was struck not just by how rundown
and depressed the town was (along with many other towns in the
local authority area it is ranked as one of Scotland's poorest
places in the Index of Multiple Deprivation) but by how people
there looked older and unhealthier than in more affluent
communities. This is hardly surprising but I think it
is evidence that a poor quality built environment does not engender
self-respect, civic pride and general wellbeing. In fact, as
Sir Harry Burns, the ex-Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, has
said many times, there is a clear causal link between
well-designed, pleasant places and good health. If this is
the case, then why do our elected politicians, local and national,
not recognise that the built environment is absolutely central to
all the priorities listed above as campaign issues, particularly
the economy and health?
At some point in the 1970s the word 'environment' was shorn of a
large part of its meaning to refer only to green
issues. In the early days of the Scottish Civic Trust,
its newsletter was called 'Environment Scotland' as the word
encompassed the whole environment, natural and built.
At the time there was also an understanding that people wanted to
feel proud of their local towns, villages and neighbourhoods and
that having a connection to and sense of ownership of place led
directly to civic pride and collective responsibility.
There are some 130 groups affiliated to the Scottish Civic
Trust. Some are called civic trusts, others amenity societies,
"friends of" or heritage groups. Their aims vary but most share a
common purpose: to care for, celebrate and champion their local
village, town or city.
Many spend a lot of time commenting on planning applications and
are battle-scarred from years of fighting inappropriate
developments or loss and neglect of heritage assets. Most members
of these societies tend to be older and many are retired. They
offer lifetimes of experience and come from a wide range of
backgrounds. They are, perhaps, not as representative of their
larger communities as they would like to be. Almost all struggle
with the same issues: ageing membership, lack of voice, recruitment
of new, younger members and a feeling of swimming against the tide.
With limited success and much frustration they make a stand against
waves of inappropriate and ill-conceived development and gradual
piecemeal erosion of what makes certain places special.
What drives them on is civic pride in their area, responsibility
for its upkeep and future and a determination to stand up for it
when it is under threat. Their sense of civic duty harks back to an
earlier time, the 1960s and 70s when civic society was at its most
active. Then, in response to the widespread destruction of much of
the country's historic fabric, delivered with fervour by modernist
zealots from the architectural and planning professions, the
Scottish Civic Trust was founded, followed by scores of civic and
amenity societies across the country.
In a time when people lived in neighbourhoods for much longer
than today's transient populations, there was a greater
connectivity to one's environment. This cohesion, along with a
campaigning spirit, imbued groups to challenge decisions made by
planning authorities and city and town leaders and helped to make
the conservation movement grow.
The civic movement is still very much alive and kicking today
but it faces threats that I believe are more serious and worrying
than we have seen for a generation. What are they?
A lack of leadership at local authority level in most cases to
protect and enhance the local built environment. A full audit
of all Scotland's conservation areas needs to be carried out.
The loss of influence at the top table by planners and
architects and the shortage of design and conservation skills in
planning departments. Also, many elected
representatives are making decisions on matters related to design,
planning and development for which they do not have the required
knowledge or expertise.
Scotland's procurement system which squeezes out design and joy
from architecture and planning for the sake of cost, which heavily
favours contractors and forces architects to charge historically
Volume housebuilding - many areas of Scotland are now open
season for housebuilders who, if their applications are rejected at
local level, simply appeal and have the decision overturned by the
Lack of investment in our precious historic environment and
brutal commercial decisions being made in cities like Aberdeen and
Edinburgh where the latter is in danger of losing its World
Heritage Site status.
The incredible number of, at best, mediocre student housing
developments springing up all over our cities adding nothing
imaginative to the visual streetscape.
Local authorities are being starved of cash and are compelled to
sell off assets and prioritise health and education over
architecture and planning as if the issues were not intricately
There are Scottish Government policies which deserve praise such
as the new Place Standard Tool developed by Architecture and Design
Scotland with NHS Scotland. Also, it is hoped the recent
review of the planning system will encourage greater community
engagement in the decision-making process at an early stage and it
is good to know that better links between community planning and
spatial planning will be promoted. Similarly, Our Place
in Time, Scotland's historic environment strategy, needs to be
delivered by the new body, Historic Environment Scotland and all
its stakeholders, including my own organisation, the Scottish Civic
However, as long as we continue to have a developer-led planning
system and where the mantra of economic regeneration is the main
driver rather than design and community-led solutions I fear that
decisions being made today in haste will have repercussions for
generations to come.