A new tool measures the health of Scottish towns

The Understanding Scottish Places tool brings together the huge amount of data about towns, says Gina Wilson

The key to progressive local economic development is for towns to be able to access evidence to help inform their future, to make decisions on the provision of services or to develop the assets available in (and valuable to) the town.

Marshalling robust and meaningful information into a simple format was the motivation for creating the Understanding Scottish Places (USP) tool.

Launched in 2015, and free to use, USP compares 479 Scottish towns (all with a population above 1,000). The UK’s first tool of this type, it enables users to understand the facts, figures and interrelationships that underpin all towns and cities, bringing together over 36,000 different pieces of data about places and people in Scotland into one online, searchable database.

Two years on, we’ve just launched Understanding Scottish Places 2.0 to help take the concept of comparing towns to the next level. We took our own analysis and user feedback to ensure USP reflected what people wanted. It’s by no means the final version; USP 3.0 is already in development!

What can Scottish Places 2.0 do?

As well as comparing town histories, geographies and economies, users can now look at commuter flows (which could help influence transport decisions), the diversity of the retail offer, tourist accommodation capacity and the amount of grant funding received by a town.

Ultimately, USP is a tool for all of those invested in making our towns better places to live and work. It recognises that different places have different needs and require different services and resources. It explores the way in which each place has a unique identity and that no place exists in isolation.

All towns are part of a complex web of relationships, some obvious, others less so. This is how we need to think about places when we design services, invest, and innovate. Over half the UK’s population live in towns, they are therefore critical to our future wellbeing and prosperity.

Rather than rank towns as ‘better’ or ‘worse’, USP also focuses on shared characteristics and employs a unique interrelationships scale which provides a more refined and constructive picture of how places work together.

Since its inception in 2015, USP has been used over 10,000 times by professionals, local organisations and town stakeholders to support their work.

It’s also been used in over 20 in-depth ‘Your Town Audits’, a comprehensive study which builds on the USP data to give an individual town a much wider appreciation and understanding of its role, function and performance. The USP Your Town Audit has now become the standard benchmark for measuring the health of a Scottish town.

Whilst USP can’t do it all, it makes the most of towns’ data to inspire better decisions. With budgets front of mind, the roll-out of a similar tool in other jurisdictions could only be a good thing. The power of evidence provides power to towns to pursue vibrant and prosperous futures.

  • Gina Wilson is development manager at Carnegie UK Trust
  • USP was commissioned and funded by the Scottish Government and the Carnegie UK Trust and was developed by a consortium comprising of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling. Find out more here:


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