A New Future for Scotland’s Towns – Recommendations

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

St Andrews

This is the third 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

In arriving at our recommendations therefore the Review Group has attempted to build on the good progress made and the clear path set out in 2013. We have tried to reflect the changed context and the new national ambitions especially in the areas of environment and climate. We welcome and recognise significant progress across Scottish Government in developing and aligning policies that assist communities and town centres and focus on inclusivity and equalities and have attempted to align with these.

We have made three types of recommendations.

First, we have a set of proposals about strengthening the role of town centres in planning and the role of communities in shaping their town and town centre. This set of proposals is primarily for the planning profession at national, regional, local and community levels. The aim is to strengthen the position of town centres overall and ensure a local embeddedness and focus on working with all of the local community. We need to enable and ensure a more equality-focused participative approach to engaging all parts of our communities, and not just the same voices. This includes, for example, a focus on local accessibility to services, and concepts including 20-minute neighbourhoods, making sure older and disabled people can benefit fully. Some of these recommendations can be taken forward as National Planning Framework 4 is developed further in 2021; others can be adopted immediately. A refocus and reemphasis on Town Centre First would be beneficial.

Recommendation 1: Strengthen the formal positioning of towns and town centres in National Planning including requirements to produce town and town centre plans, co-produced with communities and enhance data collection and use at the town and town centre level

  • Towns and town centres to be included and prioritised in National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4)
  • Town Centre Plans need to be developed and implemented with the local community and with a focus and commitment on the wellbeing of people, the planet and the economy
  • Develop a revised and enhanced focus on measurement and data for towns and town centres

Secondly, we have identified and seek to tackle what is an unfair playing field, stacked against town centres. Taxation needs to reflect activities or it becomes unsustainable. We make recommendations for consideration mainly in the area of rates and taxation to make it more attractive to operate in town centres and less attractive to operate out-of-town. This will help address equitable access to various public and commercial services. We suggest rebalancing taxation to better encompass and reflect the rapid rise of online activities. We seek to tackle the environmentally unfriendly nature of much of our current activity and the need to make substantial changes in operations and behaviour to meet our climate targets. These suggestions could usefully be considered in detail in 2021 by the Scottish Land Commission’s expert group on Land and Property Tax, though the proposal for a moratorium fits more closely with the ongoing NPF4 development.

Recommendation 2: Scottish Government should review the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that wellbeing, economy and climate outcomes, fairness and equality are at their heart.Potential suggestions for actions include

  • Amendments to Non Domestic Rates (NDR)
  • Amendments to VAT
  • Introduce a digital tax
  • Introduce an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy
  • Introduce a Moratorium on Out-Of-Town Development

Thirdly we build on the strong basis of the original Town Centre Action Plan and its emphasis on projects and partnerships. We reflect that we need to accelerate these, sometimes by incentivisation, and to better exchange the knowledge and learning from them. We focus on pre-existing themes from the Town Centre Action Plan in terms of town centre living, digital development and enterprising communities (and inducing vibrant local economies). We add to this with a set of proposals based around climate change response. In all these areas we recognise the progress made, the partnerships currently developed, the steps being taken by Scottish Government, as well as future ambitions. These recommendations thus link directly to the Place Based Investment Programme, Community Wealth Building, 20-minute Neighbourhoods and Active Travel. We recognise the opportunity to develop and focus such projects, partnerships and investments with the local community to improve equality and access for all groups across society.

Recommendation 3: Expanded and Aligned Funding of Demonstration Projects in Towns and Town Centres.

We have an overall request that the Scottish Government continues to seek to expand and ensure further alignment of the funding available. Funding for town centre activities has to be substantial, multi-year and cover revenue and capital spend. We recommend that projects should be focused around themes of

  • Town Centre Living Expansion – housing sector incentivisation in town centres
  • Digital Skills and Use in Towns – skills development for businesses and enterprises and extended uses of various technologies to understand and change behaviours in town centres
  • Enterprising Communities – Strategic Acquisition Fund to later ownership, development and use patterns in town centres to encourage local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economies
  • Climate Change Response – building on existing programmes in Climate Action Towns, micro-generation, retro-fitting of town centres buildings and the alteration of space in town centres for active travel, pedestrian movement, green space and social settings, with a view to enhancing the resilience of town centres against climate change.

Towns and town centres can deliver many of the ambitions for Scotland and its people. They can only do this however if they focus around the specific needs of their local communities and ensure all community voices are engaged in developments. Town centres can be places we can be proud of and which provide social, economic, cultural, creative, environmental, entrepreneurial and local opportunities for all citizens. This can be done, but we need to prioritise, support and actively rethink what we want in our town centres and show how this removes inequalities of place and identity and enhances the wellbeing of all those that live in and use them. We believe our recommendations, if adopted, will help on this journey and will result in greener, healthier and fairer town centres.

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

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