Lessons in building a community in our new towns

Jane Deary is chief executive of Livingston-based Spark, a social enterprise that provides a range of work and social based services to the local community

By Jane Dear

WITH their concrete jungles of roundabouts, high-rises and graffiti-daubed underpasses, Scotland’s new towns have long been a cliché of urban hardship and woolly community thinking.

The idealism of the 1950s and 60s, when many of them were built, soon gave way to an acceptance that the fabled land fit for heroes promised by post-war politicians was long on romance and rhetoric and short on cash and realism.

Despite periodic upgrades and injections of inward investment, new towns continue to be dogged by inequality and social problems, including disproportionately low-income levels, higher than average unemployment and poor health.

Livingston celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and, while the West Lothian new town is doing its best to look forward to a positive future, the legacy of its past creates a challenge for many of its inhabitants who remain among the poorest and most disadvantaged in Scotland .

Too many people living in new towns continue to fail to reach their potential, suffer ill-health, don’t work and even some who do, can’t afford to heat their homes, or feed themselves and their families properly.

The future of new towns won’t be decided from the outside. If they are to prosper, it will be as a result of hard work by the communities themselves.

Spark is one of several grassroots organizations that not only provides social services to communities in Livingston, but also enables local people to meet their potential.

The global pandemic was a catalyst for the flowering of a stronger partnership between groups like Spark and the communities they serve.

Forced back on to our own reserves. We learned, first to cope, and then to grow together, and our volunteers are to be commended for the resilience and resourcefulness they showed in helping to improve the lives of everyone around them during those tough times.

Ironically, it was the new town spirit that came to the fore and provided a guiding light. One of the earliest problems for new towns back in the early 1960s, was that the people who came to settle, mainly from the inner cities, worked here during the week, but returned to their former neighbors at weekends, to socialise with their old friends and neighbors.

Today, Livingston continues to attract new settlers – from south Asia and Eastern Europe among other places – and in them and helping them to assimilate, we remember the experiences of our parents and grandparents when they first welcomed here.

Only when they started to remain in the new towns at weekends, to mix, and socialise together, did they start to feel like they are a proper community.

There are lessons from the past in how to build and sustain a community – we meet, we work and we play together and we look out for one another – it’s an old message for a new town.

Jane Deary is chief executive of Livingston-based Spark, a social enterprise that provides a range of work and social based services to the local community

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