Far-reaching plans that have brought public and private sectors together aim to stimulate growth and ensure the prosperity of Stirling for decades, writes Clare Mackay.
It seems entirely appropriate that in Braveheart country, a courageous move to transform the local economy is already gathering pace. Stirling Council has a clear vision for the next 25 years, one it hopes will be a catalyst for business and job creation, securing the area’s wellbeing for generations to come.
However, it is not just Stirling Council’s vision. Creating this £200 million plan has involved local traders, multinationals, and key agencies, together with community groups, the university, and the college, all working with the council to shape the future of the city and its surrounds.
When the plans were first announced last month Stirling Council Leader Johanna Boyd said the aim is to “re-position Stirling as an economic and cultural powerhouse”, with six key targets leading to the creation of digital and knowledge hubs, a food and drink market place, a cultural quarter and performance space, plus a conference centre and a new city park.
As Stewart Carruth, Chief Executive of Stirling Council, underlines, these are ambitious plans that are further-reaching than just the proposed transformation of the city’s centre, and have brought together both business and public sector organisations in a “team Stirling” to set out a series of priorities that will not only stimulate growth, but also provide a firm foundation for many decades.
After budget cuts set earlier this year, and amid warnings of tough times still ahead, the Stirling administration, a Labour-Conservative partnership, is well aware of the task they face.
However, Stirling Council believes uniting stakeholders and citizens behind this multi-layered strategy would represent the next step towards the triangulation of an economic force in central Scotland. What the council is also convinced of is no matter how these plans evolve over the next three months, something has to be done to underpin the sustainability of Stirling’s economic future, and soon.
“If Stirling doesn’t do anything, the key economic indicators, salaries and productivity will decline,” says Carruth. “Doing nothing is just not tenable. Our cities are drivers of economic development and you can see the evidence of that by looking at what is happening elsewhere in Scotland, and in the UK, particularly with the discussion around Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse.
“Stirling is a relatively small city, but there is little doubt some of the same principles of approach apply equally here. If we are ambitious and bold about the city’s future the benefits will also reach the rural and surrounding areas, and forming a key economic triangle with Edinburgh and Glasgow would be tremendously powerful. Stirling benefits from a great central location, combining a good quality of life and excellent transport links – it’s not about competing but becoming a niche player in the development of Scotland’s economy.
“However, it’s about more than simply economic development. Our vision for Stirling in 25 years’ time is about how people will live, work, and study here. The plans for arts and culture must dovetail with those for the local economy, really creating a vibrant city where students mingle with international visitors, and our businesses are a mix of homegrown and inward investment. It’s also important to recognise we have world class educational facilities here, from our schools through to Forth Valley College and the University of Stirling.”
The six-fold targets, which form part of Stirling’s City Development Framework, are still being finalised, and the City Commission, set up earlier this year as a sounding board for the initial proposals, is helping to shape what will later become the blueprint for Stirling’s progress.
“They are putting their collective shoulder behind the drive to make Stirling a great place,” says Carruth. “As well as the commission, we are also working with a wider group of stakeholders in the city. Well over 100 people attended two stakeholder events to help inform what the future might look like, from community councils and local businesses to third sector organisations and others who have an interest in ensuring this plan happens. It’s a wide group, and all their views will help to shape the projects coming forward. It’s still evolving, and it’s important we make sure people are aware of the process, and have their say in what the final plans may look like.
“This should not be seen as a council project, but a Stirling project, Team Stirling in fact, and we want as many citizens as possible to be part of that. They need to feel a sense of purpose in the city going into the future.”
Stirling’s plans build upon a number of existing strengths, with the city in the “heart of Scotland” very much focused on the visitor economy. With a skyline dominated by Stirling Castle and the nearby Wallace Monument, together with the attractions of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, tourism and hospitality remain key contributors to the local economy, as do financial services where Capita and Prudential are the main players . However, agriculture is also important to Stirling, and the creative industries and knowledge sector are also now emerging with considerable potential. The role of the University of Stirling in developing national centres of excellence in aquaculture, sports science and dementia care are also hugely significant. For Stirling, the goal is to secure the appeal, and value, of the area’s history and heritage, while also nurturing the industries at the cutting edge of innovation and technology.
“Stirling has built a reputation for tourism through our key attractions, and the challenge for us is to contemporise, and build upon that,” says Carruth. “We have done a lot of work to identify our sector strengths, and yes, tourism is central to that but we also believe there are opportunities within the technology sector. We are starting to think at a level of detail that would link digital and technical services with sectors already established here, such as financial services, and emerging opportunities such as healthcare, and bringing them together in a multi-dimensional way.
“One of Stirling’s advantages is size, and the smallness of the city means companies that may be thinking of investing here can see how projects are manageable and deliverable. Stirling is home to 10 of Scotland’s top 100 companies, and we are looking at putting in place technology infrastructure such as wireless 4G, to overlay that connectivity for big businesses such as FES, Ogilvie and the Robertson Group, and large organisations like the university. We are differentiating ourselves as a city, with Stirling providing a niche offer for businesses and citizens, and we can play that role in technology too.”
The council clearly recognises the scale of these ambitions, and that a number of funding strands will be needed to achieve them, with the hard work in sourcing investment from both private and public sources already under way. While this is the start of a process clearly marked ‘work in progress’, Carruth is convinced Stirling possesses the right mix, a unique set of civic and economic attributes that will be attractive to a variety of investors. And again he is keen to stress that Stirling’s size, rather than limiting its potential, conversely represents a positive quality that is manifested in its location, accessibility and connectivity.
“There has been a shift across the UK to seeing cities such as Glasgow or Manchester as city regions that in turn are key economic drivers attracting significant UK government finance,” he says. “I’m not suggesting Stirling follows that funding route. In terms of how the plans will be financed, it will probably be unique to Stirling, a blended approach of public and private sector funding. We are currently building up a case to attract public funding, from both the Scottish and UK governments, as well as seeking to attract corporate and institution investors. The value of the portfolios will be different, with government funders looking for results in terms of economic indicators, and private investors expecting a commercial rate of return and so some of these projects will be more attractive to one group than the other. However, there is a relationship between the two, with public funding as an enabler to bring in funding from the private sector.
“Working in alignment with agencies such as Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, we understand it is a competitive environment, and so our keenness to differentiate Stirling is important.
“So, why Stirling? All my experience tells me what companies are looking for when they choose to invest: access to a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, a great place to settle, for employees to live, to enjoy a great quality of life, and value for money. Obviously Stirling benefits from a strategic location as one of the best connected cities globally being within 45 minutes of both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports.
“That is extremely attractive and our job is to take that proposition out to potential investors, and to make them aware of what Stirling has to offer, in a way that’s never been done before.”
Of course, any funding secured will not arrive as a whole, and with some aspects of the six goals about marketing and presentation, rather than infrastructure, completion of the proposed projects would need to happen in a series of stages.
“Inevitably, there will be a phased approach to delivering on these plans,” says Carruth. “Some projects will happen before others and this will be down to the various strands and how we develop them. It is important to say the council is already investing a significant amount in the city however, given the content of the planned projects, some will be able to happen more quickly.
“The market and the cultural quarter will be able to happen more quickly thanks to our already vibrant cultural sector, businesses who are keen to see it happen and sites that are ready to go. We want to bring that together and promote it, and this is something people will see done soon. In realising the vision, investors will accelerate projects and ideas that would have otherwise lain dormant.
“In progressing the plans, we have to earn the respect of the citizens of Stirling, and make sure they actually see something happening, and have faith in what we are trying to do here.
“That it is not about the council, but about all of us together, for our children and grandchildren, making sure Stirling remains a vibrant city where people are drawn to spend more of their time.
“One of the issues central to achieving that is connectivity. We have the castle, the monument, the parks – all great heritage, but involving a number of different organisations. We need to see that connectivity working, where those who visit the castle are attracted into other areas in and around the city.
“We need to make sure things are in place to make that happen, so visitors don’t just go to the castle and go away again.
“The idea of the city park is key, making it a destination, an entry point to the city, attracting people into the castle, and the cultural quarter, and the city itself, spending time in cafes, and shops, turning isolated attractions into part of a network.”
That theme of connectivity runs through every aspect of the city’s plans, with Neil Benny, Deputy Council Leader and Convenor of the Finance and Economy Committee, insisting they represent much more than just an economic makeover, offering real potential for everyone who lives in the area.
“This is a great way to ensure that Stirling can compete in the modern world and really make it a place that people want to live in, set up businesses in, and come to visit,” he says. “With this plan, I am optimistic for Stirling’s future.”
Carruth also feels positive, but underlines this will be a period of change for the council too. “When I set out the vision of Stirling Council, I ask people to imagine a little time travel,” he adds. “We know where we want to go. So I talk about a council that is helping to drive on a great city by being ambitious and bold, but in addition this will be a council that is more flexible, and agile in how it delivers services to the community. There is a rich and diverse mix between the city and rural Stirling, but the needs are very different. In five years time, people will be talking about a council that is more engaged with those different communities, and has moved to a model of public sector delivery that is right for the 21st century.
“The City Development Framework is absolutely tied in to an approach that is about adapting, and how the council needs to be more fleet of foot in responding to different demands. This is all part of a broader vision about how the council operates by being more risk aware and not risk averse, and much more consumer focused. We have active communities that are ready to be involved, and the council in recognising this must be ready to work with them and let them take the lead if they want to. The £200 million plans are part of this overall vision, and that’s why it’s so important this has to be about Stirling and not just Stirling Council. Everyone has an interest in coming together to achieve those ambitions.”