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Ahead of the 2016 and 2017 Parliamentary and local elections, there is a window of opportunity for thinking how Scotland can deliver its vision for growth and widespread prosperity.

It was barely breakfast time as we walked up to the City Chambers, but tourists were already unfolding maps and brandishing selfie sticks on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Jamie Cooke, Head of RSA Scotland, and I were there to run the first of two sessions on prosperity and place in Scotland. With devolution to Holyrood in train – building on the Scotland Act (2012) and stoked by the momentum of the referendum and General Election – the question remains as to how Scotland’s cities, towns and rural communities deliver the nation’s vision for a thriving, inclusive economy. 

The RSA has shown, particularly through our recent City Growth Commission, that geography matters when it comes to economic and social productivity. Our work with the Heritage Lottery Fund is considering how communities define themselves and the role local heritage has in place identity and place-shaping.

Out of these projects, and others, emerges a clear sense that the notion of place leadership is changing. Devolution of powers from central to local government still has a way to go, but this policy trend is taking hold and sparking new conversations between local authorities, public service agencies, business and civil society organisations as to how they define their place, and their role within it, beyond the confines of organisational or geographic boundaries.

At a strategic economic level, scale is fast becoming the only game in town, requiring collaboration within and between city-regions and their surrounding rural areas. At a more local level, collaboration is key to devise and deliver tailored solutions to the specifics of local problems, harnessing civil society ideas and assets in the process.

As the Scottish Bill progresses through Parliament, Scotland will see transfer a range of further powers from Westminster to Holyrood, enabling it to shape its future as a nation. Meanwhile the Community Empowerment Bill going through the Scottish Parliament seeks to enable localities to take greater control in securing their economic and social prosperity.

However, there seems to be missing middle. City-deals in England and Glasgow, with appetite being shown in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness, suggests that Scotland can now seek more ambitious devolution beyond Holyrood. As we argued in Scottish Policy Now, and Professor Duncan Maclennan similarly warned in the Herald this week, such ambition will be vital if it is to combat the threat ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and global competition. There is an urgent need for a spatial strategy for Scotland that drives inclusive economic growth for cities, towns and rural communities.

From Edinburgh, Jamie and I headed on the long train journey north to Elgin, an historic cathedral ‘city’ in the rural county of Moray. Here, as in other places, there is a question of how the area develops its economic potential and Moray’s task is all the more interesting as it falls squarely between two major Scottish cities, Inverness and Aberdeen.

As we discussed with a group of government, business and civil society leaders, it became clear that on the one hand Moray’s geographic ambiguity is a positive – encouraging resilient businesses that were accustomed to looking outwards and building the region’s position as a net exporter (with whisky being the prime product). But on the other hand, Moray’s positioning means that it often gets lost on the map. As one person said, “For an area that should be thriving through tourism, we don’t exist on the Visit Scotland map.

Ahead of the 2016 and 2017 Parliamentary and local elections, there is a window of opportunity for thinking how Scotland can deliver its vision for growth and widespread prosperity. At the RSA we are looking to foster this conversation, and encourage you to get involved.

Charlotte Alldritt is Director of the RSA's Public Services and Communities workstream. You can find her on Twitter at @calldritt.

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