A new national review aims to find ways to breathe new life into Scotland’s town centres
For many years, towns have been an overlooked part of Scottish life. With policy makers focusing on both rural communities and cities, towns were stuck in the oft ignored middle ground. However, campaigners have worked tirelessly for years to bring towns and their centres to the fore and their hard work seems to have paid off. In September, the Scottish Government announced leading Edinburghbased architect Malcolm Fraser would chair the national review of town centres. A panel of experts from organisations including Ernst and Young, the Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Businesses will agree an action plan for re-energising Scotland’s town centres, addressing issues associated with planning, rents and rates, competition and empty properties.
The Government acknowledged that while progress has been made in all these areas, many town centres continue to face considerable challenges and current estimates suggest more than 20,000 commercial properties across Scotland are lying empty.
Nicola Sturgeon, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, said: “Town centres are vital to the economic and social fabric of Scotland – they are the heart of our communities, offering a base for small businesses to thrive, and providing a focal point for social interaction.
“We want to take every measure possible to ensure our high streets are vibrant places where local people want to spend their time and money. In 2009 we awarded £60m to 66 projects through our Town Centre Regeneration Fund, creating nearly 1,000 jobs. The review will build on this significant investment.
“With Scotland’s high streets facing a range of challenges, we are eager to ensure that they continue to thrive and flourish to meet the needs of future generations. Central to that will be issues like rents, rates, planning and empty premises. Ensuring we have a joinedup strategic approach to issues like this can only help our town centres thrive. Of course, investment is also crucial and we, along with our partner agencies, will use this review to inform future budgets and investments going forward, to make sure we are collectively investing at the right level and in the right places.”
Fraser added: “Many of our town centres are struggling. This is not just a matter of nostalgic regret – their integrity, liveability and neighbourliness provide Scotland with its creative and business focus. They are our true ‘eco-towns’, whose health is also critical to the Government’s low-carbon agenda. I like the wide-ranging brief this review has – it encourages us to examine a wide range of changes and initiatives to lever positive change. And I’m delighted to have been asked to chair the wide-ranging and eminent external advisory group that will push it forward.”
Fraser gave a keynote speech at Scotland’s Towns Conference which was held in Perth recently. Organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the conference also heard from Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay and was chaired by Ross Martin, policy director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) and board member of the partnership.
Fraser told the conference: “We don’t want to go into various places and tell them what they are and what they aren’t, and what they do well and what they don’t do well. We want to give towns the ammunition, levers and ability to work it out for themselves. There is tremendous concern, care, interest, passion, and love for towns in Scotland and we do realise how significant this moment is. This is one of a number of forums I have been at where we are talking about these things and it reflects the fact we know we have to do something. I am concerned, though, because what I often get back is we all agree on the vision and the problems. I hear a lot of articulation of broad issues but when it gets down to what can we do, that becomes the stage where I want to hear more.”
Mackay also believes there is a great deal of “passion and interest” around towns. He said: “When local populations are asked what are the most important priorities for future generations, they will say the town centres. That is not to say that the same people will always use their town centres because having a pride in your local community, isn’t always the same as using it as we should. However, there is a drive within the public and private sector to regenerate our town centres. There are many work streams in relation to planning, local government and town centres which come back to my desk and I will work very closely with ministerial colleagues and local government partners.
“I am enthused by the Business Improvement District (BID) process and the number of local areas which are engaging in it. In relation to town centres, I see them as one very effective tool in delivering town centre regeneration but local solutions are critical here. There is no one set of rules or guidance which will work for every town in Scotland. For most it will be about diversification because retail will never be as it has been in decades gone past. Shopping and commercial patterns have changed and town centres’ roles must adapt to circumstances and that is where government and local government’s powers and regulatory functions must fit in.
“That might involve less retail, more housing and more events. Other local communities might have a unique selling point whether it is books or culture, whatever the local dynamic is, [we must] take advantage of that to ensure it gives the town centre a future.”
Ross Martin said Scotland’s Towns Partnership brings together the key players working to design, develop and deliver stronger places at the heart of many of our communities. Speaking of the conference, he said: “By planting a standard in the ground, around which Scotland’s Towns Conference is growing into a week of activities supporting our local high streets and town centres, the partnership is maintaining the momentum created around the place agenda by its many active member organisations. Whether it’s called regeneration, renewal or a rebalancing of the many, varied interests in our town centres, the partnership continues to work hard to ensure that local people have the power to take those decisions for themselves, and make the place they call home serve the community in which they live, work and play.”
The Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) is holding a congress in Linlithgow on Tuesday which will focus on the future of Scotland’s small towns. Writing for the forum’s website ahead of the event, Professor Emeritus Cliff Hague, chairman of BEFS, said: “Scotland’s small towns are in a critical condition. The crisis has arrived quietly and is being faced with some stoicism. That’s the way Scotland’s small towns tend to do things. However, what is happening to our small towns should be of concern to the nation as a whole. At the moment it isn’t. We have policy making that rightly focuses on the key role of Scotland’s main cities, as evident in the Agenda for Cities. There is also the £1.5bn Scotland Rural Development Programme. However, the small towns, despite being such contributors to Scotland’s history, and home to about one in three Scots today, lack visibility and political clout. Before it is too late, residents and policy makers need to think creatively about the role and identity of the small towns and consider the trajectory their town can take over the next 20 years.
“Each small town is unique, but it is possible to identify some general pressures that impinge on many of them. The fate of any town is in part prescribed by the state of the national economy, and small towns are no exception to this rule. However, small towns face a more uphill struggle now than they did a generation or two ago. There is no shortage of research in geography and economics that explains why larger settlements have become ever more important economic drivers. The advantage that the bigger cities enjoy is that they offer bigger labour markets, better communications infrastructure and global connectivity, more access to new ideas. They are the places where ambitious immigrants and young professionals head to. In the knowledge economy, these advantages count for more than they did in the days of smokestacks or assembly lines.”