THERE are few people who know Scotland’s towns like Jim Leishman. For decades, the now Provost of Fife managed football teams, including his beloved Dunfermline Athletic, which bobbed up and down the nation’s football leagues. So he has been, he says, “everywhere, loads of places”.

“I have a soft spot for Berwick-upon-Tweed,” he says, referring to the home of the only technically English club in the Scottish league. “There are a lot of great towns, Aberdeen, Dundee.”

But Leishman warms up as he gets closer to home. “Look at Falkland, Culross, these places are fantastic. Look at the East Neuk of Fife. St Andrews is beautiful.”

The Labour councillor represents Dunfermline – and a new academic report from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University underlines just how well this Fife boom town is doing.

Scotland’s ancient capital, Dunfermline is also the fastest growing – and fastest improving in the country, according to a detailed crunching of government statistics.

Leishman is not surprised. And he dials up his pride to reflect this. “It is a lovely place, Dunfermline.

“We have the new bridge and the circle line in Fife. The expansion of Dunfermline has been amazing with people – first-time buyers or people from Edinburgh coming across and getting more value for their money.”

But Leishman recognises that there is a problem in Scotland: we no longer talk about our towns. We fret about islands and remote Highlands. We focus on the economic engine houses of our cities. And we neglect the dozens of communities where so many of us live and work.

Some of these communities are not doing well. The new Cambridge University report reveals a very mixed bag of results for Scottish towns, especially some of the post-industrial ones. “Most towns on the west coast of Scotland are declining faster than the average British town,” its authors conclude. “Ayrshire and areas along the river Clyde appear to be a hotspot for town decline.”

They are talking about communities such as Dumbarton, Irvine, Greenock and even Troon, some of which at least match Dunfermline for their historical pedigree.

But Leishman has advice for fellow civic leaders. “Just keep the pride in your town, in where you are from, keep the heritage. I am a proud Fifer, especially of Lochgelly, my hometown. We should not be afraid to speak about the positives.”

Towns are unfashionable, at least for policymakers. So much so that some of Scotland’s most town-like towns – the kind geographers use as case studies – have been jostling to be redesignated as cities. Stirling, Perth and Inverness have all successfully secured city status. This seems to please some politicians. Geographers roll their eyes.

The latest research sets aside such eccentricities, harmless as they may be.

A town, for geographers, is an urban settlement with a population of between 10,000 and 170,000 or so. Council borders – such as between Glasgow and Rutherglen – or local name signs, such as the border between and Gourock and Greenock, are not important for this kind of analysis.

And so Scotland has three real city conurbations, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and 59 distinct towns, from relatively big Dundee to Whitburn in West Lothian.

Michael Kenny, the professor who leads the Bennett Institute, admits there is wiggle room over definitions.

He said: “What some people will call a town, other people will call a city. The two things blur in to each other.

“For the statistical stuff, we use a technical definition. A town is a place that exists separately from a large city, that has its own identity and its own sense that people feel they belong to them, and they are smaller than a city.

“Over the last two decades in Britain and in many other countries the dominant assumption is you can achieve growth through cities.

“Almost inevitably that led to towns and other communities moving to the margins of the attention of policy makers. I don’t think that was always deliberate. But towns fell from view.

“A number of towns have quite rightly read the runes and seen that in the world of government funding and focus, being a city or a city region is a better route to getting resources.

“There is something else here as well, which is that some of these places, and Dunfermline is a good example, are seeing rapid shifts in population and feel more like cities.”

Kenny and his colleague Ben Goodair have been crunching numbers across Britain. They are looking at things like levels of deprivation and jobs density – how many posts there are per person in a town. And they have watched populations wax and wane. So Greenock shrinks and Dunfermline grows.

Amid the bigger picture, there are hard truths. Scotland’s towns are poor. “Three-quarters have more household deprivation than the average British town,” concludes the report. “Meanwhile, towns in Scotland also appear to have lower numbers of some key public services. There are fewer nursery schools, mental health practitioners and health services compared to the British average.

“The sparsity of these services is indicative of lacklustre town centres and struggling local economies.”

There is only one of the 59 towns with no police station (Kilwinning is covered from Irvine). Only six lack a fire station. Yet centralisation under successive governments mean there are many with no hospital.

The authors suggest things are getting better for public services in towns. “In terms of changes to public service numbers between 2011 and 2018, its towns outperform those in England and Wales ... and, of the top 20 British towns with the most increases in public service provision, 12 of them are Scottish.”

Sometimes services – such as transport – are based around historical population patterns. The report cites Greenock as an example. “As a key centre of manufacturing, shipbuilding and mining since the 19th century, Greenock has 11 train stations. This serves as a useful reminder that levels of service provision are sometimes the result of longer historical patterns, not just current policy choices.

“Overall Scotland’s towns have experienced a reduction in the number of their services in key areas such as education, culture and emergency services, quite often because these have been consolidated in larger urban areas. In some cases, councils have merged schools, or ‘supercampus’, in the hopes of reducing costs. “Aberdeenshire Council reports nine recent consultations on reforming school provision through mergers, moving campuses and changing catchment areas.”

The reality is that towns vary. A lot. Those that still have jobs are doing well. Only six of the 59 towns have more jobs than people of working age: oil town Westhill in Aberdeenshire, Inverurie, Inverness and Culloden, Elgin, Livingston and Perth. Dumfries, Fraserburgh, Stirling and Glenrothes are not far behind.

But jobs do not necessarily mean wealth. Some dormitory or retirement towns, or those that are a mix – such as Helensburgh, Linlithgow, Stonehaven, Carnoustie and Ellon – can have low levels of deprivation despite low or medium levels of local employment.

Kenny and Goodair suggest this variety means there is no one-size-fixes-all solution. Their reports says: “The wide geographic spread of towns in Scotland means that there is a variety of kinds of town. Understanding the different needs of these – for instance those that are struggling on the west coast, compared to its more prosperous ‘working towns’ in the northeast and the belt of residential, commuter towns around large cities – is a prerequisite for more effective policy responses.”

In England, the focus on towns comes after Brexit, after the chattering classes noticed that town dwellers and the left-behind of small urban centres voted Leave. Kenny added: “We are seeing a turn back to look at towns because certainly in England the jolt of Brexit has provoked some soul-searching.”

The Federation of Small Businesses is one of the few bodies demanding more attention for towns, Brexit or not. Its spokesman, Craig Borland, said: “This report shows our towns remain a mixed bag, with some offering unique and vibrant locations to live, work and do business. However, many towns still bear the scars of deindustrialisation and continue to struggle with that legacy, especially in the west.

“If we want to improve the economic fortunes of our hard-pressed towns, we need to tackle the root causes of their challenges. And, at the core of that, is generating and maintaining a critical mass of economic activity – spreading their risk across several economic sectors; making it easier to start up and run a business; making it the first choice for consumers; ending their abandonment by banks and the public sector. All of that, of course, requires long-term funding and support.”

Politicians will be spending a lot of time in towns this month as they hit the campaign trail. They can expect to hear a lot about bus stops, banks and post offices, job centres, supermarkets, train, fire and police stations and all the other amenities that make a town a town.

10 most deprived towns

• Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly and Lumphinnans

• Methil, Leven and Buckhaven

• Stranraer

• Whitburn

• Greenock

• Larkhall

• Kilsyth

• Irvine

• Hawick

• Prestonpans

Town health check: three success stories

By the report's authors


Falkirk scores best of any town in Britain on our index of changes to public service numbers between 2011 and 2018.

By our measures, Falkirk can be categorised as an improving town, an isolated town and a working town. This means it has better economic improvement relative to other British towns, sits further away from a city than most and has more jobs per resident within its boundary than most.

Falkirk benefits from being a large town giving it multiple economic strengths. As the largest town in the Falkirk council area, it acts as a hub of services and employment for residents of Falkirk and nearby areas. Industries such as oil and manufacturing are a strength in Falkirk, Scotland’s only crude oil refinery is located in nearby Grangemouth.

Falkirk also benefits from being on the main Edinburgh to Glasgow train line.


This is the sixth most remote town in Scotland in terms of its distance to a nearby city. However, it has had economic growth better than most towns, has more jobs per resident than most towns and is in the top 20 British towns for increases in numbers of public services since 2011.

Elgin stands out in our dataset for having particularly high numbers of jobs per resident. The Royal Air Force has traditionally provided a large proportion of these jobs. RAF Lossiemouth air base contributing around 3,000 jobs alone. Elgin’s ability to retain high numbers of employees while being a very isolated and small town means that it stands out in our report.


Perth is another “success story” for scoring well across our board of measures. The town is one of the better growing economies in Scotland based on our Improvement Index. Perth is also one of the towns with the highest numbers of jobs per resident and, like Elgin, has lower rates of household deprivation than most Scottish towns (although higher rates than the British average).

Perth comes fourth highest in our index of changes to public service numbers.

Perth is not as large as Falkirk but still acts as an employment hub. The town is home to the headquarters of Scottish and Southern Energy and Stagecoach whilst Highland Spring is located down the road in Blackford.