New study

Call for Scottish cities to gain special powers

Scotland’s cities face a toxic cocktail of change

Scotland’s biggest cities need tax raising powers, immigration to be devolved, an overhaul of business rates and major investment in connectivity to succeed in the future, according to a new report.

A study of the so-called AGE cities – Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh – has found that the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and Brexit have combined to create a potentially “toxic” cocktail of change for urban Scotland. 

Scotland’s Urban AGE 2022 was commissioned by Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce, together with Brodies and Anderson Anderson & Brown.

Professor Brian Evans, head of urbanism at the Glasgow School of Art, led the research team and estimates that city inhabitants will soon outnumber rural dwellers for the first time in human history.

He said that Scotland needs the AGE city regions “at the top of their game” if it is to remain globally competitive. “Cities need to be dynamic, or they decline,” he warns.

Despite accounting for just 22% of Scotland’s land mass, these city regions house 68% of the population and account for 73% of the country’s GVA. 

However, these cities have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic, which hollowed out shared spaces, devastated high streets and accelerated societal change. Together they lost 124 weeks of sales, more than any city in neighbouring England, due to Scotland’s stricter pandemic measures.

The report finds that economic challenges have combined to create five key challenges: a 30% fall in office requirements; industrial scale refitting of the built environment to reduce the carbon footprint; policies designed around an ageing population; government support to prevent the loss of routes from airports as a result of the pandemic; and changes to the business rates system to reflect changes in all market sectors.

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The report’s commissioning partners have made seven recommendations to policy makers:

* Devolve meaningful tax raising and other fiscal powers to cities.

* Increase the residential population of city centres.

* AGE cities to form an alliance to accelerate their journey to becoming net zero cities.

* Devolution of immigration policy to ensure cities and regions have access to the workforce they need to prosper.

* Investment in growing and upskilling the planning service.

* A new rates system fit for the century of the city.

* Significant and transformational investment in rail infrastructure and city airports.

Speaking on behalf of the three Chambers, Russell Borthwick, chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce said: “The updated report considers what has changed in light of the pandemic and the accelerating net zero carbon agenda, and also the many fundamentals which have not.

“It must be used to provide the launchpad to propel Scotland forward in the century of the city. And we ask Scotland’s policy makers to urgently work together with business communities to make the necessary interventions that will shape the next chapter for our AGE cities – and it must happen at pace.”

Elaine Farquharson-Black, partner and co-head of planning at Brodies, said: “The recommendations set out in the report come at a critical time for our cities and provide useful direction to encourage economic recovery at a time of unprecedented change.”

* Last week, Reform Scotland called for directly elected mayors as pat of a process of giving powers over local taxation, including business rates, to Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said handing control of the £2.8 billion business rates levy to councils would be a “retrograde step”.

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