Civic Pride in the 21st Century

John Pelan, Director of Scottish Civic Trust, reflects on the state of civic pride in the 21st century, challenges and opportunities.

Currently there are just under 130 groups in Scotland affiliated to the Scottish Civic Trust.   Some are called civic trusts, others amenity societies or ‘friends of’ or heritage groups.  Their aims vary but most share a common purpose which is to care for, celebrate and champion their local village, town or city. Some have websites. Some don’t.  A few even have Twitter and Facebook accounts.  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.   A lot of the groups run programmes of talks and some of them publish heritage leaflets and magazines.

Most members of these societies tend to be older and, indeed, many are retired.  They offer lifetimes of experience and come from a wide range of backgrounds, some professional, some not.   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 – pride in their area, responsibility for its upkeep and future and a determination to stand up for it when it is under threat.   Some might call them curmudgeonly while others will respect them for the voluntary work they do in promoting local heritage and encouraging better placemaking.  Their sense of civic duty harks back to an earlier time – the 1960s and ‘70s when civic society in the UK 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 neighourhoods for much longer than today’s transient populations, sometimes a lifetime, 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 grow the conservation movement as we know it today.

The challenge for these groups now is how to be relevant and effective in today’s fast moving world of multiple distractions, 24 hours news coverage, and the shifting sands of modern society.  They can sometimes appear analogue in a digital age but it is encouraging to see some of our groups engage with social media, recognising that having ‘followers’ might be as important as more members.

It would be easy to claim that the biggest threat to the future of civic society in the 21st century is apathy but I don’t buy this.   People are interested in their built environment, local history and heritage.  If not, why else would over 70,000 people visit Doors Open Days buildings every September or how can Facebook sites such as ‘Lost Edinburgh’ have almost 136,000 followers?  Of course, it is far easier to click a ‘Like’ icon on a Facebook page than join a group, become a volunteer or comment on a planning application.   Perhaps the mind-set within local authorities needs to change to better reflect the concerns and aspirations of the public.   In the Scottish Civic Trust’s recent six-point action plan, produced in the run up to last May’s Scottish Parliament elections,  we argued for a strengthening of the role of communities in major planning applications, particularly at the pre-application stage as well as endorsement of the new Place Standard tool, applicable to new housing developments and existing neighbourhoods.   This resource, along with the Community Empowerment bill and the recent Review of the Scottish Planning System must lead to more people getting proactively involved in decisions affecting their local places and spaces.  If they don’t they will have failed.

So what is the future of civic pride in 21st century Scotland?  I don’t believe there is a crisis yet but as Cliff Hague pointed out in the recent Scottish Civic Trust Annual Lecture, Civic Pride, Civic Identity, Civic Trust, “civic pride is most likely to be constructed when there is a strong sense of shared civic identity, enriched by stories that are told be governments that are civic champions”.   In other words, it is not good enough for our local heroes, civic champions and heritage angels to be drawn just from communities; our elected representatives, council leaders and officers need to demonstrate they too are committed to enhancing and celebrating Scotland cities, towns and villages and to putting civic responsibility before politics and profit.

John Pelan, Director, Scottish Civic Trust
21 June 2016