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Good friends and firm foundations: some interrelated keys to enterprising places

Jim Metcalfe - Head of Development at Carnegie UK and co-creator of Understanding Scottish Places


Three years ago, when a group of people and organisations came together to build the Understanding Scottish Places data sharing platform, we had a small but daunting set of challenges. 

We wanted to bring together all quality data about Scotland's places into one location. It had to be free to all, easily usable, and comparable. We also wanted to explore how places interrelated with each other - how they transact skills and goods and services together, and depend upon each other - in a new way. And we wanted to do it all without demeaning struggling communities, helping places to plan good ways forward rather than attacking policy mistakes of the past.

This fresh new analysis of how enterprising our places are, using USP as its basis, touches on many of these challenges and ambitions and is fascinating as a result. 

Very superficially, you could look at these ranked numbers on self-employment and business activity and say that low yielding communities are the socioeconomically deprived ones, and the higher performing are those with advantage and means locked in. 

However, that doesn't explain everything. I took three of the lower level enterprise performers at random (Garelochhead, St Andrews and Grangemouth) and three higher ones (Pittenweem, Pitlochry and Kilcreggan), and ran a comparison across all of the USP data and interrelationship indicators. 

So, why do they differ? The clearest distinction is in interrelationships and work. The more enterprising towns, regardless of geography, have more of their workers travelling further to work, have higher levels of sectoral diversity amongst their workforce, and a slightly older population with a concentration amongst 45-64 year olds. They also provide more social goods locally (health services, public sector and educational resources), and have slightly higher proportions of adult homeowners.

Our random three from the lower end of the enterprise table all enjoyed a slightly younger concentration of residents, and higher levels of rented and social housing tenure. Whilst people did not travel as far to work (few workers commuting more than 5km per day on a regular basis), these communities were nevertheless more likely to depend on neighbouring places to provide health and education services. There was also lower diversity in the skills and professions of their workforces.

So if prospering new enterprises rely on concentrations of ambition, capital, skills and opportunity, there is no surprise that these diversity and interrelationship indicators favour the higher three as they do. But it is also surely significant that these things are built on the firm home footing of accessible local services and reliable housing. Social, environmental, transport and economic factors would appear, then, highly connected in the fostering of enterprising communities.

I hope that more analysis like this will develop and be debated, using USP, into the future. It is a rich resource of data, and one not accessible to many other countries and jurisdictions. We are also looking forward to the launch of a second stage redevelopment of USP this Autumn, with many new features and added items of data on community development, tourism, commuter patterns and much more.

Jim Metcalfe is Chief Executive at the College Development Network and co-creator of Understanding Scottish Places. He wrote this piece when Head of Development at Carnegie UK. 

Entrepreneurial Towns

Leigh Sparks - Professor of Retail Studies and Deputy Principal at the University of Stirling


Scotland is a nation of towns; the Understanding Scottish Places project reinforced this with its data platform for 479 towns across Scotland.  USP provides both a data source on a consistent basis and also an interpretation of the inter-relationships that towns possess.

What comes out clearly from such a platform and analysis is that whilst each town is distinct and different and has its own attributes and assets, no town is wholly isolated, in that every place is in a series of inter-relationships in a local or regional network of places and towns, yet at the same time, across Scotland, there are comparators for every town, often not in the immediate locality.  We all therefore have much to learn from analysis of the data, a better understanding of our towns and their assets, capabilities and potentials, and from learning across this extensive national towns landscape.

USP shows that it is meaningless to consider one town as better or worse than another.  All situations are consequences of history, and towns have their own assets and potentials, yet are embedded in, and deeply affected by, the networks of relationships that residents and visitors exhibit.  So, when we think about entrepreneurial towns, we have to consider not just the individual places, but also their history, circumstances and assets, and the inter-relationships or independence that they exhibit.

Across the country, it is recognised that there is a need to encourage and increase our entrepreneurial talent and activity.  We need the new ideas, new business, the creativity, drive and ambition.  Small business is a key component of the Scottish economy and needs to be nurtured and expanded.  Others can deal with the questions of how this is best achieved, but there are exciting opportunities out there, once we understand the needs and barriers and aim to set free the talents and energy that is around.  Scotland is not short of ideas, but these ideas are often stifled by an opportunity deficit.

There is no ‘natural’ level of self-employment or entrepreneurship in towns.  Towns are simply too distinct, unique and different for that. Historical circumstance, degree of independence (or self-reliance in this context) or inter-dependence and the sense of identity and opportunity all make simple comparisons somewhat misleading.  What we need to understand is how we raise the entrepreneurial attitude and capacity at a local level, town by town, and provide the encouragement and opportunity to try things and to get started.  How do we install a ‘can-do’ and ‘should do’ mentality?  In some places entrepreneurship may be coming from a lower base than elsewhere, which makes the opportunities all the more interesting.  Variability is both desirable and inevitable; these figures show the opportunity that is there to be grasped.

Leigh Sparks is Professor of Retail Studies and Deputy Principal at the University of Stirling.  He runs a retail blog and can be contacted at