“What makes Perth special should also be what guides us going forwards.”
Perth is a beautiful place. It has a quality of environment and landscape that few cities in Europe can match: Kinnoull Hill, the River Tay, two Inches, and its place at the centre of Big Tree Country. Although this beautiful environment is evident, it is often (in my experience) taken for granted, and Perth itself is more widely misconstrued. People outside Perth regularly refer to it as a place they’ve ‘driven round’, or as ‘a bit quiet’ or ‘well-to-do’, and in one of the more ridiculous statements I’ve heard, ‘not really part of Scotland’. Even some of our Inspiring People speakers have mistaken it for Perth, Australia. Perth is, ironically, one of the only parts of Scotland that has always been in what people would commonly historically refer to as Scotland. But all of this suggests a place that is not well understood.
Perth is fairly self-contained and perhaps doesn’t sense a need to shout about itself, which is certainly typical of the local character. This market town, which has grown out of a crossing point and trade centre, and has acted as the seat of royals in Scotland and a coronation point for Pictish and Scottish monarchs, dating back at least as far as the 8th century, has lost sight of its own history and could certainly do more to tell its own story and develop its sense of place. However, what is perhaps more pertinent, as a newly (re)crowned city, is its sense of itself now and what it wishes to become, and here, I believe, it is missing a trick.
Perth is surely one of the greenest and healthiest cities in the UK, but it needs to do more to build on this if it wishes to capitalise on this natural strength. It has a wide array of high quality cafés and independent retailers, but with the very nature of retail changing, these can only ever be one part of the future of the city centre. Like many towns and cities, it is over-reliant on the car. (It is disappointing how many Scottish towns think the solution to all their woes is a bigger car park!) Connectivity has always been a crucial part of Perth’s national position, but this needs to extend beyond road traffic. Yet it has let its rail link to Edinburgh dwindle. There is a strong sense that it doesn’t do enough to keep and attract younger people. And Perth has plenty of green space, but could do more to celebrate its environment – its trees, parks, river, even its high recycling rates. How can it incorporate this more into its thinking?
The biggest current local priority project is the building of 7,000 new homes, and the roads to go with it, but it is not exactly clear for whom, and why? Is it to raise more money in council tax? Is it to accommodate projected growth from migration from the west coast and elsewhere? Or is there a perceived need for a larger population to increase the critical mass of people to support the local economy? And where will they work, if they are not retired? Will they commute to work and to play, or will Perth provide enough to keep them more locally? And as with so many beautiful spaces, will this undermine the quality which makes Perth so special in the first place?
There is much to be resolved. For me, though, what makes Perth special should also be what guides us going forwards.
Being one of the smallest of the seven cities, there is a real opportunity for Perth to lead and showcase sustainable solutions, in part because of its scale. Could Perth build a more robust transport infrastructure which retains and future-proofs its place at the heart of Scotland’s communications networks? Can it ensure it is the best place to grow up and make a start in life, not through foam parties, but through offering the best education and apprenticeships, leisure facilities and sustainable, affordable housing? Can it reduce its car dependency and create more safe places to cycle, walk and play, and in the process improve its air quality and further enhance its environment?
Perth could do much more to build on its vibrant, healthy, active side, which already exists, though more at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning than at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night. This would help create an identity that everyone could rally behind, including its various employers – renewable energy companies, public transport providers, government environmental organisations, waste and land managers, and NGOs.
All of these aspirations play to Perth’s natural strength – its quality of life, driven by the quality of its environment, making it one of the healthiest places in Scotland to work, live and grow up. It is in Perth’s DNA, and as urbanisation and global environmental pressures grow, this will only become increasingly more unique. Scotland aspires to lead the world in its concern for the environment, and Perth could aspire to lead in Scotland. That is where I believe Perth’s future lies: the most sustainable small city in Europe, naturally.
Mike Robinson, Chief Executive, RSGS