A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres: Summary of our Approach

Professor Leigh Sparks, Institute of Retail Studies, University of Stirling

St Andrews

This is the second of three linked posts on the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group Report (an introduction, summary of the review approach, recommendations). The full report and details of the Review Group, evidence submitted and heard and background and other material can be found at www.futuretowns.scot

The 2013 Town Centre Action Plan was the Scottish Government’s response to the National Review of Town Centres.  The Town Centre Action Plan emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted Town Centre First and the use of data on towns across Scotland. Six themes (town centre living, accessible public services, proactive planning, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies) focus activities to improve town centres.

The subsequent seven years have seen changes in the national ambitions and context. The development of the National Outcomes and their linkage to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have positioned Scotland as focusing on wellbeing, inclusive development, climate emergency responses and health and inequalities. Place and town centres have been identified as components of solutions to some of these issues and Town Centre First, the Place Principle and other place and planning changes have promoted this approach.

There has been progress, particularly at the policy and the local level. There has however remained a sense that more can be done to enhance town centres given their scope to meet our societal objectives. Inequalities amongst communities and places remain stubbornly persistent. Town centres have continued to have a fight for their future. Then came Covid-19, which altered the world as we knew it and amplified existing, and produced further, inequalities.

In July 2020 therefore the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, MSP set up a Review Group, chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks at the University of Stirling to review the Town Centre Action Plan and to consider how we can make our towns and town centres greener, healthier and more equitable and inclusive places and to come forward with a revised plan for action for towns and town centres. The Group was also asked to look at the emerging concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

Over 6 months the Review Group has taken written and oral evidence, considered results from a public survey and previous research on towns and town centres across the UK. It has debated what the role of town centres can and should be across Scotland. In reaching its conclusions we note that the route-map set down in the Town Centre Action Plan is widely admired and has been followed in part by other governments; the basis of the approach remains sound. Progress however needs to be more consistent and rapid.

The Review Group adopted a vision for towns and town centres: “Towns and town centres are for the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centre successful”. Towns and town centres are very well placed to deliver on the national ambitions. They are the heart of communities can provide shared and equitable access to products and services, have an ability to focus sustainable and local economic and social activity and can deliver enhanced wellbeing through a positive sense of place, history, community and environment.

The best of our town centres and our most successful towns offer a sustainable, local economy and society with diverse and mixed uses attracting and meeting the needs and desires of their local communities. They are centres that enhance a sense of community, place, identity and engagement and that advance equality by enabling all members of society to participate fully.

Currently however some towns and town centres are not meeting these ideals and ambitions. They can be perceived as disappointing by many residents and visitors with a lack of sense of place or difference and little by the way of local presence or engagement. Some town centres may be perceived as excluding particular communities or groups – for example,  if there are concerns about safety at particular times, where using the town centre is considered expensive compared to other options or where it is not as accessible as it should be. There are many town centres that do a good job, but we need to improve overall and especially where local needs are not being met.

There are a number of reasons behind the current situation. Sixty years of decentralisation (development away from town centres) and disaggregation (separation of uses) has removed many activities and assets and reduced reasons to visit and dwell. The operating costs in town centres are higher than in competing channels such as out-of-town sites and the internet. The lack of organisational and ownership differentiation means that local stake-holding can be limited. Town centres are often choked by an over-reliance on car-borne traffic and an under-emphasis on people access and movement.

We can point though to examples where the town centre has become the focus of attention whether by local authorities, community groups or the third sector. Place-based investment is being prioritised, often where local authorities have adopted Town Centre First and placed an emphasis on their town centres. The Place Principle and town centre planning and visioning has been shown to help generate investment and build a sense of place. Concepts such as Community Wealth Building including community asset ownership are gaining ground. This local engagement and focus on the community as the driver of change is really important. It also reflects that whilst general conditions can be set nationally to aid town centres, so much has to be done at the local level. Towns and town centres are unique places and have their individual specific localities and communities to consider. Rural and island located towns and town centres are distinct from towns in the heart of dense urban conurbations, such as across the Central Belt. At a detailed level, what works for one town centre, and for one community, does not necessarily work for another.

This post first appeared on the Stirling Retail blog on 3 February 2021.

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