Professor Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies, Institute for Retail Studies, Stirling Management School
In 2007/8, the global crisis and recession began. One consequence was the primacy of vacancy as a measure of success or failure. High streets were in crisis. The Scottish Government in 2009 responded by launching a £60m town centre regeneration fund. The UK Government invited a TV personality to investigate high streets.
Fraser and TCAP
In Scotland, wisely, the problem was seen not as one of high streets but of place and the Fraser Review of 2012/3 – the National Review of Town Centres – was swiftly followed by the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Action Plan. These provided a ‘road map’ for Scotland which has come to be seen as a model.
The Fraser Review had 6 themes (town centre living, digital towns, proactive planning, accessible services, local economic growth and creative and entrepreneurial places) wrapped in two over-arching principles/needs; a town centre first policy (quickly signed by COSLA and Scottish Government) and the need for consistent and comparable data on towns.
Implementation can be described under three components. An organisation – Scotland’s Towns Partnership – was empowered to bring together, learn from and amplify the towns activities and importance. Various tools (Understanding Scottish Places, Towns Toolkit, Place Standard) were developed to aid communities in analysing their towns and starting informed conversations. A number of mechanisms helped communities to deliver change in towns (BIDS, Development Trusts, Social Enterprises and the Community Empowerment Act). It is not complete nor perfect but is a major step forward.
An Updated Fraser?
It is worth reflecting 6 years on, what themes a Fraser type exercise might produce now. For me I think that a carbon neutral theme would be essential. I feel the local economic growth theme could be reframed as inclusive local economies. There is also a gap around culture which might be added to the creative and entrepreneurial theme or could be separate.
One of the things that has to be stated is that we have been at this for only 5 years. We are trying to undo decades of neglect and damage. In retailing we have spent almost 40 years adding space, mainly on greenfield and out-of-town sites. Latterly we have seen 20 years growth of the internet leading to 20% of sales being online. Consumer behaviour has also altered with convenience being a key theme together with price and for some experiences. Consumers no longer change their patterns to visit the shops; they expect retailers to be in locations that suit their lifestyles. We should not be surprised at shops closing and space being vacant – it is a consequence of all this development and change. How we react to this and harness the opportunity is far more important. These trends are not confined to retailing but affect other sectors.
The State of Towns
So what is stopping us imagining and redefining towns? The cost base in towns is not sustainable especially when compared to other locations and online. Landlords (often absentee) are divorced in many cases from reality and seek rent and covenant beyond sense. We are too inflexible in our reactions, including for town centre living and alternative uses and in many places distinctiveness and ambition is lacking or is solely focused on nostalgia.
In contrast, towns that are doing better are often fortunate in their local community and its coherence and ability to work together. An analysis of assets (physical and human) has led to a focus on the potential, not the past, and the possibilities, not the obstacles. These places are often carving out and stating a clear identity and story and have independent and entrepreneurial businesses and organisations that buy into this. They are essentially local and distinctive, meeting various consumers’ needs.
So, finally, what might make the situation better? There is a need for funding for town centres. This funding needs to be substantial, sustained but also targeted and directed. It can not be a formulaic equal misery appropriation, which simply gets wasted. Secondly local authorities need to be required to report on towns (as defined by USP) and to provide data and management at the place level not the arbitrary LA boundary level (or its subdivisions). People live in towns and places; we need to understand them. Thirdly, a number of issues have arisen about the community capacity deficit (e.g. in BIDS/SIDS, community councils, right to buy etc.). We need to seriously tackle the lack of capacity and sustain the good activities. This can not be left to chance and burn-out.
We should also bring in and then refine online/sales tax and reduce the burden on town centre, physical retailers and also entrepreneurs. Longer term we need to tackle the issue of VAT on renovations and the non-level playing field this (and other fiscal and other measures) creates between town centres and out-of-town activities. If nothing else our carbon neutral ambitions demand this.
Leigh Sparks is Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where he researches and teaches aspects of retailing and retail supply chains. This post, originally published on the Stirling Retail blog, summarises a recent presentation on the state of towns and town centres in Scotland, and work that has derived from the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and Scotland’s Towns Partnership.