Perth is a place with a dilemma. For 90 per cent or more of the last 800 years it has been considered a city, but since the local authority changes in the 1970s, it has finally lost its much prized city status.
It would like it back. But before it could co-ordinate efforts to seek re-establishment of city status, it had at first to come to terms with not being a city any more, and many refused to recognise that. However, over the last three years, and particularly during 2010 - the 800th anniversary of being made a Royal Burgh by King David I - Perth has started to campaign much more actively for its reinstatement.
But what drives this desire to be recognised once more as a city, rather than as a town? Is it a backward looking longing for lost glory? Is it a throwback to its time as a roman settlement?
Or as a favourite of the early kings and queens – the royal summer retreat and effective capital of Scotland of the middle ages? Or is it the Georgian era of expansion or the era of Victorian philanthropy, to which so many roads and buildings still draw their names? Or perhaps it is a forward looking vision and a nod to its potential to become a model city of the future?
So what sort of a place is Perth? A few years ago some friends of mine were visiting from Amsterdam and they asked exactly that question. I wasn’t really sure how to answer, so I decided we would go and buy the local paper and let them decide for themselves.
"Lorry Parks on Double Yellow Lines"screamed the banner headline. Okay, so it can be quite a quiet place.
Much to my friends amusement my wife not only remembered the incident but explained in some detail the inconvenience of the situation. But there is a lot more to this east Scotland town of 44,000 inhabitants than simply relative quiet.
Perth is very low lying and despite being twenty miles inland the river Tay is still tidal. This explains some of its strengths and its weakness. The reason the Picts chose Scone, a mile north of Perth along the Tay, as a coronation place for Kings, is because that is where salt water met fresh water and it was considered to be a place of much spirituality.
Its low elevation is also of course the reason it has been prone to flooding over its long history too. Constant siltation has caused the ground level in some areas to rise by three or four feet, as archaeological investigations have discovered. However, with siltation comes minerals, and as with many flood risk areas, agriculture therefore benefits and has remained a mainstay of the local economy consistently.
This area produces around 70% of Britain’s raspberries and other soft fruit. Perth itself has tried to protect itself from the worst effects, after the last bad floods in 1993, installing a flood defence system. Flood gates are now shut every time the river threatens to burst its banks.
The story of Perth and the Tay are therefore inextricably interwoven, and for me, partly because of this, Perth is a place which has still managed to retain a very obvious connection with nature. As our lives generally become more and more rapid and separated from the natural world we are part of, Perth has a refreshing habit of reminding you of the bigger picture. I find that both humbling and reassuring.
Kinnoull Hill with its stunning autumnal slopes acts like a giant look out to the East, the white tips of the lower Cairngorm mountains peek over the horizon to the north, with the lower alder slopes of Dunkeld in the foreground. The River Tay, with a greater outflow than the Thames and Severn combined, ebbs and flows below the various bridges, a torrent in flood, but a millpond at high tide.
The harbour, once the centre of a busy import and export trade in food, drink, leather, cloth and timber, still operates but traffic is quieter in comparison, and otters, ducks, gulls and other wildfowl are quick to reclaim it after office hours.
But, rather aptly in big tree county, it is the trees that define Perth for me. I had to drive up from London on one occasion and felt an almost physical change when i reached Perthshire because of the trees.
It was the first time on the long road north that i could remember woodland roadside, and its effect to foreshorten the horizon and provide interest released the built-up tension of the drive. It is perhaps no coincidence that people who are attracted to the outdoors in its various guises are attracted to Perth.
Perth: Migration and Diversity
But don’t think you can move to Perth to become anonymous - if you want to be anonymous move to a big city. Perth, despite its large catchment population of 130,000 people, is still small enough that you cannot disappear. For example the regular Big Issue sellers are usually known by name.
Perhaps because of its size, the recent influx of eastern Europeans (continuing the trend for migrants almost exclusively from within the EU), often helping with the berry harvests, as generations of Scots used to do, is higher profile than they might be in larger conurbations, but this is not a new phenomenon. Poland in particular has a long tradition of links with Scotland, with migrants moving in both directions.
Perth in particular played host to many Poles during WWII, when the celebrated soldier statesman, General Sikorsky commanded thousands of soldiers many of whom were based in the Perth area. There is a large Polish cemetery near the Hospital and many third and fourth generation poles are now assimilated and settled throughout the local area and many recent Polish migrants have settled in the area also.
Mostly though Perth’s demographic make-up is fairly unremarkable. Perth has a higher than average retired population (2% higher than the Scottish average) but its largest demographic is the 30-45’s. The group which is slightly lower than average is the 18-25 population.
The relatively high employment level obscures the fact that there are relatively few employment opportunities, and the fact that many younger people have to move away to find work. It also underplays the number of families with one stay at home parent – more than one a half times the Scottish average.
Most of those that work are employed in retail, property, construction, tourism, health, environmental and council services. The importance of agriculture is still strong, but it is not the dominant force it once was – now comparable with transport and finance.
There are some larger individual businesses in the area, such as Stagecoach and SSE, the power company – perhaps fittingly the most renewable led large utility in the UK, and a large employer in the town.
But many of the businesses that built the town are no longer there. The old business stalwarts such as Pullars have now gone, and others have diminished in stature. Many drinks and whisky firms have either merged and moved away, or in the case of Highland Distillers, left only part of their operation.
And the insurance giant General Accident, which has deep roots in the town, and which had its ‘world headquarters’ built as recently as the 1980s has been taken over several times and has now become only a call centre for insurance company Aviva.
There are also a strong contingent of commuters in Perth – to Edinburgh or Glasgow or even London, taking advantage of the quality of life and lower house prices but forced to travel further and further to find well paid employment. And many reps choose Perth because of its unparalleled road connections.
Perth sits at the northern end of the UK motorway network, but is within ninety minutes of 90% of the Scottish population. Depending on traffic, Edinburgh is an hour south, Glasgow an hour and a quarter to the south west, Aberdeen an hour and a half north and east, and Inverness two hours north.
Its strategic location has always been a strength for Perth – firstly as a crossing point for the Tay, as a harbour for import and export shipping and as a rail link between Scotland’s four main cities. But its rail links were severed during the Beeching cuts and as a result, for most of the past forty years, it takes half the time to get to Glasgow by rail than it does to get to Edinburgh.
As the car has increasingly become king however, its road connections have made up for this deficit, but it may will need to reconsider its road dependency if it is to thrive during this century. And with its beautiful but fast rural roads and poor cycling infrastructure it is missing a trick in more sustainable transport.
Interestingly this might start to be addressed with the provision of a new pedestrian and cycling bridge over the Tay, to the north of Smeaton’s bridge, the old arched bridge which connects the town to Bridgend and Scone. There has been some opposition to this proposal, and it will be a test of its resolve, and perhaps of the clarity of the council’s vision, to see whether this does indeed go ahead.
Perth: Some Contemporary Issues
There are many other issues facing Perth too. Perth people fought hard with Tayside Health Board to retain the full range of services at the local hospital, such as the maternity unit, many of which were due to be switched to Dundee’s Ninewells to be centralised as part of a cost saving exercise.
This is a consequence of power resting in Dundee, something Perth used to be subject to for most of its services, when the wider Tayside Regional Council was in existence until the mid-1990s.
More recently locals opposed an energy from waste plant proposed for the harbour area, because of concerns about its environmental impact.
Other questions revolve around how it will get best use from some of its common good and council properties, like St Paul’s?
Should the City Hall, built in the early twentieth century be demolished or converted – having been deemed not cost effective and made obsolete by the new splendid Concert Hall to the North of the city centre.
Would Perth benefit from a city square in its stead?
Should a new road bridge be built north of Perth assisting the flow of traffic from the north east and bypassing the town?
How will it cope with the proposed very large number of new houses to be built in various locations around the outskirts?
What will the impact be on landscape, traffic and what will the pressure be on remaining green spaces?
Perth: Looking to the Future
There is an uncertainty as to where Perth is heading. It has an increasingly rare connection with its environment. It has trees and green spaces and great natural beauty. It has the river, the hills, and is the sort of place you can still see the stars at night. Perth is the first slow food town in Scotland, it was the first Farmers’ market in Scotland, has a leading renewable energy company and a world leading bus company.
It has offices for governmental environment and nature agencies and several NGOs, including Royal Scottish Geographical Society with its recent Slow/ Love Travel campaign. It has a strong tradition of small independent retailers which has always been a unique draw for people shopping in Perth.
Perth College is also part of the recently conferred University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). It is the main route to the Highlands – to Scotland’s ski slopes, mountains, bike tracks, fishing lochs and canyoning and kayaking rivers.
The town centre is at risk of waning further and looking like every other town in the UK – any investment in enhancing it and supporting the small independents has to be welcomed. The town is not very cycle friendly, and much of the development in the last twenty years is simply reinforcing the car dependency, favouring edge of town shops and homogeneous bland suburbia.
Like many towns, its town-centre is withering.
And as the home of multinational transport company Stagecoach, it is ironic that bus use is half the average of other towns and cities.
The Arts are well represented in Perth, with an annual Arts festival, the new Concert Hall and the Perth Rep Theatre and some of the celebrations around the Perth 800 hinted at a livelier future still.
The sporting facilities are slightly improved with the recent development of ‘campus schools’, but there is too big a preponderance of gyms, and like much of Scotland, an obsession with football, in the shape of St Johnstone Football Club (the club’s name reflecting Perth’s past as St John’s Town), and not enough focus on the minority sports Perth actually is better at – like kayaking, athletics, squash, judo, swimming and curling. Could a more focused approach achieve more results and enhance the sense of identity?
Perth has a great history, as the political heart of Scotland, a royal burgh, a fortified town, a roman base. Does it look back and try to recapture something it once might have been? Or does it draw inspiration from one of its famous sons, the great polymath Patrick Geddes, who grew up on Kinnoull Hill, and inspired people all over the world to re-invent their spaces and towns.
Does it simply remember its earlier benefactors, or can it inspire a new generation of philanthropists and public to build a dynamic modern urban centre?
Does it look forward to what it could be, using and celebrating the best of its history and character to help to define its identity and its future?
Perth does indeed have a dilemma.
How does it retain its integrity and character in the face of rapid expansion, financial constraints and widespread change.
How does it recapture the best of its past and yet rise to the various future challenges?
Can it suitably capture these various strands and articulate a clear vision?
Can that vision inspire a new generation of philanthropists?
And is that vision for a city which is simply swamped by modernity, a city which looks to its past, or for a city ready to define a new future?
- Mike Robinson was writing in response to the BBC/Open University co-production Town With Nicholas Crane