Decline in town centres ‘not inevitable’

Oban town centre

AN independent review into Scotland’s town centres has called for collaboration in ensuring that they are at the heart of communities.

The ‘A new Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ paper reviewed the progress and scope of the Scottish Government’s town centre action plan which first launched in 2013.

Led by Professor Leigh Sparks, deputy principle of retail studies at the University of Stirling,  the report called for a strengthening of the formal positioning of towns and town centres in national planning amongst other measures.

Professor Sparks said, “The current narrative is too often about the decline or death of the town centre. This is not the case in many of our towns but we can do more, and better, for all towns. Decline is not inevitable. We have to allow towns to achieve their full potential to deliver a modern, sustainable, fairer, healthier and greener Scotland. This requires hard choices and a high level of commitment from communities, local and national governments and from our business, third sector and community organisations.

“Above all, it requires people to collaborate and work together for their town and town centre. Towns can and should be the heart of the community, delivering for people, planet and the economy. We need to make this happen.”

The group behind the report gathered evidence over six months, examining what the role of town centres can, and should, be across Scotland. While it found that the basis and route map of the town centre action plan remains sound, they concluded that progress ‘needs to be more consistent and rapid’.

Alongside increasing the positioning of towns and town centres in national planning, the report made the following recommendations:

  • The 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.
  • Funding of demonstration projects in towns and town centres. For example, projects around themes of housing sector incentivisation in town centres; skills development for businesses and enterprises, and extended uses of various technologies, to understand and change behaviours in town centres; encourage local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economies, and build on existing programmes with a view to enhancing the resilience of town centres against climate change.

The group added in the report that there is a renewed interest in independent and local businesses, encouraged ‘in part’ by home-working and reduced commuting, they said this could prove to be a ‘significant legacy’ of Covid-19.

Cabinet secretary for communities and local government, Aileen Campbell MSP, said, “I extend my wholehearted thanks to Professor Leigh Sparks and all the members of the Review Group for the knowledge, expertise and hard work they have brought to this important programme of work. They have done this in the midst of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, taking into account the profound economic impact we know the pandemic is having and will continue to have on people, businesses, communities, and town centres.

“Flourishing and vibrant towns centres are essential for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of our communities. This year’s Budget includes £81.6 million for projects to support community regeneration, place, town centres and 20 minute neighbourhoods – where people can meet their needs within a 20 minute walk from their home. Local people know their towns best and we need to trust and empower our communities and local business to thrive in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have rediscovered our towns in a new way recently and we want to harness this.

“This independent review will play a crucial role in the regeneration of our towns and town centres. The report develops a new vision for the future of our town centres, capturing some of the new found sense of localism, and provides recommendations to help achieve the healthier, fairer, greener, successful towns our communities deserve.”

Councillor Stephen Heddle, local authority umbrella group COSLA’s economy and environment spokesperson, added, “Towns and town centres are a vital part of the fabric of our societyif we are to flourish then our towns must flourish too. That is why I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this independent review, and to Professor Leigh Sparks for his tireless efforts, leadership and experience.

“Towns are at the heart of local authorities the length and breadth of Scotland and it is to the benefit of the communities and businesses who call them home that they achieve their full potential. There has never been a more important time to focus on our towns when the Covid-19 pandemic has taken such a toll. The recommendations outlined in this report give hope and a clear direction to help our towns achieve their ambitions.”