If You’re Not a Part of the Solution… how the public sector can deliver better places – Blog by Jim MacDonald

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As part of the roll out of our new Corporate Strategy we are publishing a series of blogs to expand on the themes covered in the Corporate Strategy. In this blog Jim MacDonald, Chief Executive, Architecture and Design Scotland reflects on the role of the public sector in delivering better places, 10 years after the publication of the Christie Commission. 

It is just over 10 years since the Christie Commission report on the future of public services. With its emphasis on preventative spend, collaboration and putting communities at the centre of decision making, the report highlighted the significance of aligning public sector activity in places and back then felt to me like a seminal moment.  

Back then much of the Report reflected what many in the public sector had been clamouring for years. I also recall how strong the appetite was amongst those on the front line to make it happen. This appetite remains strong and while we now have both the Place Principle and examples to be inspired by, I doubt I’m the only one frustrated by the slow pace of change.  

Challenge to reform

So, just what has changed and what do we still need to do if we are to meet Christie’s challenge to reform?   

Well, if my experience is anything to go by, one of the big changes is the increase in collaboration amongst national agencies. In developing our current strategy, we spoke to a wide range of organisations across the public, private, community and third sectors. The consistent message was the importance of applying national resources – expertise, networks, funding and policy – in ways appropriate to local challenges and issues but crucially, working together to do so. 

For national organisations, that can mean adapting how we work depending on where we are. It means spotting obstacles to change and working to remove them. Above all, it means putting the collective interest and the need to work toward it ahead of other issues. 

Place Principle 

Another change is the Place Principle itself, which for the first time crystallises much of this thinking into a commitment from government to approach things differently. Equally, it also acts as a call to action to organisations like ours to be the change we seek and as I have written elsewhere, we are committed to play our part in this and I know others are too. 

Across the key agencies for planning – NatureScotHistoric Environment Scotland, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Water, Transport Scotland – efforts are being made to work together with local authorities to prepare spatial strategies for places. At the Scottish Land Commission, Shona Glen is leading the re-imagining of the role of land-use and ownership in realising community ambition. And across the country accelerated by the need for change as we recover from the pandemic, local and national organisations are rethinking the whole basis of their service delivery with sharing space being one of the central principles being applied. 


So, what about the obstacles? It will come as no surprise that many are of our own making, being the consequence of individual approaches to allocating and spending money or other necessary but often counterproductive processes. Happily, these can and are being addressed. Others are more challenging especially where they are more cultural or are related to structural issues be those about capacity, skills, policy or legislation. But at least half the battle is knowing your enemy and in that regard conversations like those we held when developing our strategy are reassuring in their reinforcing the collective will to tackle those challenges. 

Our role in all of this is to support change on the ground and to highlight the obstacles we encounter along the way. By doing this, we are confident that the benefits that come from new ways of working will make it easy to remove those obstacles and allow others to follow. 

(Updated July 2021)

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