As usual, my Sunday morning started out with checking twitter whilst having my porridge & some freshly brewed coffee. One of the first posts to catch my eye was from Glenn Le Santo on the demise of Detroit.
Glen & I then exchanged several tweets on the subject and our concerns for the UK now that we are no longer a manufacturing “power”. The Knowledge economy has replaced the Industrial economy here now, and with that come some fundamental changes. Glenn’s, only slightly tongue in cheek, point was that very soon we won’t even have the Knowledge economy to rely on and our leaders don’t seem to be doing anything noticeable about it. Before we know it we’ll be the ones making trainers in a sweatshop for the soon-to-be-wealthy consumers in Asia.
Alvin Toffler wrote about this in his seminal book The Third Wave, published in 1990. In The Third Wave, Toffler, a renowned futurologist, defined three types, or “waves” of society – we’re now firmly in the Third Wave, the post-industrial society. We’ve moved beyond the Industrial society, the smoke-stack era as he called it, which amongst other things created mass manufacturing, mass employment, jobs for life, and promoted the nuclear family. And it’s in this transition, this move from an era of making things to knowing things, that we seem to have lost the plot.
Just this week I was back in my hometown for a business meeting. I grew up in a little village called Scone, a couple of miles outside of the Fair City of Perth. When I was growing up in the 70’s & 80’s Perth was a prosperous market town, with a thriving agriculture and tourism-based economy. Perth was awash with specialist shops, lovely restaurants, and it was a regular winner of the Britain in Bloom competition. It was regularly voted amongst the best places to live in the UK.
In those days Perth had some big employers, most notably the G A (General Accident, now Aviva) and Scottish Hydro Electric. There were also many other successful businesses employing hundreds of people. It was a great place to grow up and then to bring up a family, as we did.
However, gradually things began to change. The GA was sold to Norwich Union, who in-turn outsourced all of the IT jobs to IBM and effectively turned the former World Headquarters of the GA into a call-centre. Hydro merged with Southern Electric to create SSE, and again Perth became simply another call-centre. Cue the loss of hundreds of “quality” jobs and an exodus from the Fair City.
Fast forward 15 years and Perth’s demise has been rapid. There are no significant employers, other than the local council, anymore. The city centre looks tired and dated, with little or no investment having been made for many years. The big Woolworths store on the High Street still sits empty more than a year after closing, and several other shops are vacant in what was once a bustling retail centre.
In a quick walk around the city centre I counted two “pound” shops and three “convert your gold” outlets. I was shocked. Rather than staying on in Perth for some coffee and a bit of shopping I beat a path back to the station to catch an earlier train back to Aberdeen.
This was when I noticed that the grand old Station Hotel was now closed and boarded up. Once a very beautiful building, and a destination for people from all over the UK in the days before the package holiday and cheap flights to Florida. Over the years it has died a slow death. I remember being shown around it about ten years ago and it looked tired then. I can only imagine what it would cost to bring it back to life. Yet another nail in Perth’s coffin.
I tweeted and posted on Facebook about my shock for the town I still love and several people commented / replied. People had their own tales to tell about what had led to the decline. The finger of blame was pointed squarely at local government for failing to see or do anything about this sad state of affairs. They were too busy building their nice, shiny, new offices it would seem.
So what does the future hold for Perth, or indeed for many other towns and cities across the UK that this could have been written about? In these austere times, when we don’t have money for the basics it would seem, these once great towns & cities will steadily get worse. There just isn’t the tax money to invest, and those tasked with leading us don’t have the skills, foresight, imagination, or capability to plot a way out of the mire.
I’m genuinely worried about the future for the UK unless we do something soon…..