By Mhairi Donaghy, associate director, Scottish Futures Trust
SCOTTISH society was built around towns and villages. From the traditional clan system to today’s modern settlements, we’re a sociable nation that thrives on community spirit.
And yet, most new build houses and developments are located so far out of town centres that people must rely on private vehicles to access the facilities and services they regularly need.
Late last year, the Scottish Government asked Scottish Futures Trust to look at the benefits of and barriers to town centre living, following the release of its Town Centre Action Plan Review. Encouraging more people to live in town centres is a key policy aspiration for the Scottish Government, local authorities and a number of their partners, underpinning priorities around sustainability, net zero, inclusion and wellbeing.
We learned the benefits of town centre living – which we outline in this new report – extend far beyond what we could have expected. The report also identifies barriers that are currently putting off private sector investors and developers – such as funding gaps, obtaining the right consents and lack of data – which we hope can now start to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
More people living in town centres means more support for local businesses. It means keeping bus routes active. It means a safer environment, thanks to passive policing. These all make a town more attractive to visitors – which in turn means more benefits to the local economy.
From an environmental perspective, people living in towns often walk or use buses to access local services, reducing their reliance on cars. And repurposing vacant buildings into housing, rather than building new, will help reduce our carbon emissions. Both of these are vital if Scotland hopes to meet its ambitious net zero target.
Increased walking also leads to better physical and mental health, which in turn may reduce strain on our National Health Service.
Additionally, living in town centres is often more cost-effective for people – not just in terms of affordable housing, but in the broader context of affordable living.
The concept of affordable living takes the question of cost one step further than simply looking at rent or mortgage payments. It also considers the cost, time and effort, of accessing basic services such as education, employment, or groceries. It reflects on the twenty-minute neighbourhood concept of easy access to facilities and services.
Thanks to the barriers preventing widespread investment in town centre regeneration, our report found that of Scotland’s 479 settlements with a resident population of over 1,000 people, just 50 places have delivered new town centre housing in the past five years.
Admittedly, developers looking to offer housing options within town centres find they are typically more expensive, riskier, and take longer than other housebuilding options. Town centre projects also tend to be smaller, providing less financial return. However, our report presents success stories from all over Scotland that councils and the wider housing sector can learn from, to improve current proposals and support the delivery of new schemes.
The overall gains do outweigh risks and costs, if we take into account the wider societal benefits such as improved wellbeing and a reduction in carbon footprint. These advantages will take more time to appear, but the long-term rewards for Scotland and its communities can’t be discounted.
Many of us greatly enjoy being part of vibrant, thriving communities. But if we don’t prioritise our town centres, we are in danger of cutting off their lifeblood. To keep them alive and reap their benefits, we must use them – and we hope that the recommendations we set out in our report can help everyone involved in this process to do more, and do better.