2018 will be the Year of Dundee but whose Dundee will it be?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 20th 2018

2018 will be the Year of Dundee. There is excitement and expectation in the city. After years in the doldrums, Dundee has now been punching above its weight for over a decade.

It is not just the anticipation of the V&A’s public opening on September 15th. The city has been picking up international attention and plaudits as variously ‘Scotland’s coolest city’ (Wall Street Journal), the ‘coolest in Scotland’ and undergoing a ‘renaissance’ (Condé Nast Traveller), ‘Britain’s coolest city’ (GQ magazine), and one of the top ten global destinations for 2018 (Wall Street Journal).

There is a good story here and we should celebrate it. Dundee has changed, lots of positive things have been happening, and more is on the way. Yet, it is also true that Dundee has historically been neglected by large parts of Scotland, from being overlooked to being patronised. How often have I heard the line ‘I have never been to Dundee I have just passed through it without stopping’, as a friendly Aberdonian recently said at a party in Edinburgh. Dundee planners have even made this easier as the Kingsway provides an easy by-pass cutting through the city.

That condescension is felt by Dundonians. My auntie Betty, in her 80s, and an astute observer of all things related to the city commented last weekend that ‘Dundee has always been a Cinderella city. Edinburgh is the capital, Glasgow is always buzzing with things going on, and Aberdeen had the oil.’ Is it possible that Scotland’s Central Belt tunnel vision, which is really a Glasgow-Edinburgh focus, will give Dundee a chance to shine and be noticed?

Then there is the question of how sustainable it is for Dundee to keep talking itself up, and to be constantly praised? What happens after the V&A opens and the novelty has passed? Doubts have already been raised about the ambitious first year visitor figures of half a million, but they aren’t really the issue. More important is what happens after that including the relationship of the V&A to other institutions and local people. Will Dundonians see their own stories and themselves in the new building? Will they have a chance to shape and find their own voices, or will well-meaning curators tell them that they know better?

The V&A development has been a big gain for the city, but it has to be a catalyst in a wider account. It may be the crown jewels in the waterfront redevelopment –itself the second largest public infrastructure project in Scotland after the Queensferry Crossing. Dundee has consistently had an ongoing relationship with its riverfront, in attempting to revive it and reconnect it to the city centre at least since the 1980s – with obvious lessons for Glasgow and the dead river that is the Clyde flowing through its centre.

How do we realistically measure what success could look like and feel to a city like Dundee? This is a city with wonderful things going on. There is the new railway station hotel being built, Malmaison Hotel in the decade-long derelict Tay Hotel, the award winning Verdant Works telling the history of jute and the city’s working classes, the refurbished McManus Galleries, as well as of course, Dundee Centre for Contemporary Arts (DCA), the long standing Dundee Rep, and the proven track record of Duncan of Jordanstone, as well as two universities and the reputation the city has for life sciences and the games industry. Then there is the remarkable Breakthrough Dundee scheme present in every secondary school supporting and mentoring disadvantaged children: offering the sort of intensive support which might just make a difference.

None of this has come by accident. Dundee has a civic leadership who are unashamedly champions for the city. Scale means public bodies choose to work together rather than engage in turf wars, and geography, which can work to the city’s disadvantage, has retained its uniqueness. Dundee is still like nowhere else in Scotland – a city shaped by the legacy of jute, feisty women and men who were in periods of unemployment relegated to ‘kettle boilers’. It has evolved a genuine culture and ecology of public and private co-operation, investment and innovation, which has paid dividends.

The world has stood up and taken noticed. But some of it is in a predictable and problematic way. Hence, the low cost of Dundee housing is understandably used to attract international experts with the quality of life argument, but the city booster/gentrification model is invoked by all and sundry despite it being bust. The Times was only at it last week, declaring ‘The sun continues to shine on Dundee’, and using celebrity Lorraine Kelly’s house going for £825,000 as some kind of mark of progress.

Previously The Times ran a whole supplement in its ‘The Future of Scotland’ series on Dundee. Despite the presence of Dundonian Kenny Farquharson their version of the city was entirely institutional and made up of public and private big-wigs. What was missing, as they are from many public conversations, were the voices of Dundonians who don’t belong to a public-private partnership, local chamber of commerce, or established a high-tech start-up.

One civic leader in the city said to me ‘what we are offering is a trickle-down version of the city, the economy and the city’ and wondered aloud about ‘how this was going to reach the part of Dundee which lives north of the Kingsway’. For those who don’t know the reference the Kingsway as well as being a 1930s by-pass through the city, acts as a kind of economic and social apartheid and quasi-Berlin Wall, with most of the communities north of it being the large-scale post-war council estates from St. Mary’s through Fintry, Douglas and Whitfield.

Dundee has some difficult economic challenges to face and turn around. A recent study of UK cities by the Centre for Cities found that the city’s employment rate of 64.1% was the lowest of any UK city and that 9,800 local citizens of working age would need to find employment to bring the city’s employment up to the UK average.

Numerous other data show the city’s comparative disadvantages. According to 2016 data from the Centre for Cities, Dundee has the lowest weekly workplace earnings of Scotland’s four biggest cities – at £493.60 – compared to £564.60 for Edinburgh and £500.90 for Glasgow. It has a higher official unemployment rate (3.23%) in relation to Edinburgh (1.52%) and Glasgow (2.68%), and a higher youth claimant count (3.16%) – Edinburgh being 1.41% and Glasgow 2.81%. It has the least qualified workforce of the four cities – with 37% having NVQ4 qualifications or more, and proportionately the smallest private sector (with the public sector 40.3% of the local workforce). The city has made significant progress in some areas and is no longer the teenage pregnancy capital of Scotland, but has a deep-seated drugs problem which has already seen a dozen drugs related deaths in January this year, compared to 38 for all of 2016.

On the plus, house prices at an average of £130,260 in 2015 are significantly below Edinburgh (£239,895) and Aberdeen (£222,411), showing that in one respect the Dundee pound can go further than other local currencies. More recent research also found that Dundee had the fourth highest ultrafast broadband connection at 92.9% in the UK – only surpassed by Worthing, Luton and Cambridge – while Aberdeen was last.

With all of the above Dundonians have shown their capacity to adapt, survive and thrive. The Condé Nast Traveller lauding of Dundee, written by local writer Danny Wallace, noted that Dundonians are ‘friendly, forward-thinking people’, a sentiment that resonates with my auntie Betty who believes that ‘they are the most generous and friendly about’. It is to be applauded that Dundonians tell themselves such uplifting tales about themselves, but there are also other characteristics to the city.

Dundonians have a natural scepticism and a propensity to be able to identify people peddling false gods or claims – whether they are homegrown such as George Galloway, or those who are passing through such as Winston Churchill. Traditionally, local people have always had a questioning attitude to power, shaped by the experience of once omnipotent religion, bad employers and the scale of poverty the city was once known for (and it is something which as a Dundonian I know runs through myself and many others). It wasn’t an accident that some of D.C. Thomson’s most famous cartoon strips such as ‘The Bash Street Kids’ or ‘Dennis the Menace’ were defined by conflict with authority. Indeed, Dundee being a left-leaning city for decades had a long running quarrel with D.C. Thomson (due to their anti-union employment practices and right-wing editorialising); that stand-off has now been buried with D.C. Thomson embracing the city (and investing in the Breakthrough Dundee programme), while locals have learnt to love them.

2018 is the year of Dundee, as London and international journalists drop in and describe the city in clichés, in terms such as ‘A little pot of gold at the end of the A92’ (Guardian), ‘Dundee is the new Glasgow’ (Sunday Times), or ‘Bilbao on Tay’ (Times). Let’s hope some at least capture the unique characters of the city and its many characteristics.

Scale gives Dundee some advantages, but also limits its potential. Cities and city-regions work by their mix, diversity and cross-fertilisation, and on an European scale, never mind global, all of Scotland’s cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh included, need to see themselves as city regions. Salutory to note that an influential Scottish economic report from 1970 envisioned a Dundee of the future of 300,000 people – when it is now currently half that size. What could a Dundee city-region look like, and is it possible today or in the near future?

The issue of local leadership and government is pivotal. Dundee has created all kinds of clusters and networks, but local government in our country is hamstrung, tied down by decades of centralisation from an untrusting centre – whether Westminster or Holyrood. Who will have the confidence to let our local democracy go free, flourish, experiment, and even at times learn to fail, and thus, adapt?

Finally, all of this is predicated on the challenge of the economy and employment of the future. Dundee has done lots of the right things this last decade, but we have to address what do we do after manufacturing and the mass employment of plant industries like Timex and NCR have passed away (the latter still having a small presence in the city)? Dundee shows what can be done in the existing economic, social and local governance environment. But it leaves unanswered the big questions that we have to address at a Scottish, UK and international level. That is how do we pay our bills in an increasingly ultra-competitive world, how do we create and share wealth, and how does the Dundee of the future belong as much to those living north of the Kingsway as to those already advantaged?