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. They 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.
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
(a) Towns and town centres to be included and prioritised in National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4)
(b) 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
(c) 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
(a) Amendments to Non Domestic Rates (NDR)
(b) Amendments to VAT
(c) Introduce a digital tax
(d) Introduce an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy
(e) 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
(a) Town Centre Living Expansion - housing sector incentivisation in town centres
(b) 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
(c) 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
(d) 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.