A New Future for Scotland's Town Centres

In June 2020 we launched an independent collaborative review of the progress and scope of the 2013 Town Centre Action Plan. The Review group was asked to build on our town centre first approach and develop a refreshed vision for our towns and the means to achieve it.

Background, Context, COVID-19 and Vision

6. The majority of the Scottish population is resident in towns. Scotland is a nation of towns set in a variety of distinctive rural, island and urban settings. These towns vary enormously in their characteristics and in their situations. Towns are unique and have distinct identities and stories but with a common respect for individual place and identity. Cities, towns, neighbourhoods, villages and communities all intersect to build the social and economic fabric in Scotland. Towns connect and interact with other towns or cities and with their surrounding areas, including in many cases their rural hinterlands. Our larger cities are interconnected networks of neighbourhoods or places, perhaps former distinct villages or centres. Our island and rural locations contain local hubs and places that focus community activity. Towns and town centres offer a social, cultural and economic heart to a community. They contain a shared built environment, heritage and spaces that, with the right conditions, provides an inclusive and sustainable centre. They are capable of providing wellbeing in the broadest sense, including positive social, environmental and economic outcomes and of reducing inequalities for example of access, disability and disadvantage

7. Attempts to draw firm definitional boundaries around towns raise issues around cities and rural communities at either side of the 'towns spectrum'. Defining by population, function, administrative governance or other measures can be excluding and raise artificial boundaries. Towns are broadly understood and we should be able to recognise the relevance or not of specific concepts in local circumstances. There is though perhaps a distinction to be drawn with our major city centres and some concepts and approaches may be more appropriate for particular types or locations of towns. Town centres comprise very diverse places across Scotland, and their exact nature depends on their local communities and local decisions. Island communities and town centres for example have their own distinct challenges.

8. Over history, town centres have been the heart of a town providing shared social, cultural and economic benefit to many citizens through work, residence, municipal and commercial activities and civic and other, including green, spaces. Over the last 60 years or so the nature and function of towns, and especially town centres, has changed. By the 2000s we had decentralised (focused away from the town centre), disaggregated (separated uses) development, often on new, greenfield sites and failed to look after many of our town centres, both generally and with respect to specific assets. The increase in the use of the car and private journeys, often for singular purposes and to separate destination or use sites has altered patterns of movement and behaviours. This is most commonly noted in retailing, but also applies to cinemas, football grounds, schools, commercial offices, housing developments, local government offices and greenspace. Town centres have seen many of their attractors disappear and an increase in various aspects of inequality as a consequence. The onset of recession from 2008 exacerbated an emerging crisis in a number of our towns, town centres and high streets and led to the 2013 National Review of Town Centres. In England the focus was on high streets and seeing the future of our town centres as mainly a retail issue, as in the Portas, Grimsey and later Timpson Reviews.[5] In Scotland we focused on town centres given the scope for town centres to help meet broader societal national goals and to satisfy more than just a consumerist need (as subsequently pursued in the Grimsey updates).[6]

9. The National Review of Town Centres promoted Town Centre First, and the better use of improved town and town centre data. The Review was developed around 6 themes: town centre living, proactive planning, digital towns, accessible public services, vibrant local economies, enterprising communities. The Scottish Government's response - the 2013 Town Centre Action Plan - outlined actions and demonstration projects against these themes to show what could be achieved. Scotland's Towns Partnership[7] was asked to play a linkage role in promoting this agenda, driving and amplifying collective change. COSLA and the Scottish Government signed a non-statutory agreement on Town Centre First[8] to promote town centre development as the primary place of development, and in 2019 adopted the Place Principle.[9] Scotland's approach to town centres has been recognised as being ahead of other countries and has been admired and in part followed by UK, Irish and Welsh Governments.

10. Scotland's Town Centre Action Plan and the consequent actions have provided a route-map and firm basis for the development of town centres.[10] This supportive environment has been utilised by some local authorities and towns to place town centres at the heart of their place activities. Town Centre First, the Place Principle and planning regime changes have provided the policy and approach context and Scotland's Towns Partnership has energised the collective focus on town centres. There remain however gaps in data (e.g. ownership of property remains unclear and difficult to access) and a lack of consistency and comparability of data at a town and town centre level. The six themes have all been the focus of demonstrator projects and local initiatives. Despite local successes, towns overall remain relatively underpopulated in terms of town centre living, enterprise and widespread digital provision and use are patchy, local economies remain dominated by national operators and/or single sectors in some cases, public services are often not as accessible as they might be and planning is often seen as being reactive in nature. There are great examples of improvements across the country within all of these themes, but inconsistent progress is perhaps noticeable.

11. The context for Scotland and our ambitions have developed further since 2013. The Place Principle and Place have been established as Government policy and place priorities are being increasingly adopted by local authorities. Community Empowerment has become enshrined in law via the Community Empowerment Act (2015).[11] There has been formal recognition of Climate Change and a declaration of a climate emergency[12] with the establishment of the Climate Emergency Response Group and the requirement for sustainability and Net Zero targets. Health and Wellbeing[13] and the reduction of inequalities have become key priorities for the country.

12. With the passing of the Community Empowerment Act in 2015, the National Performance Framework[14] became a statutory framework for public authorities and other organisations carrying out public functions. It required them to have regard of the eleven National Outcomes,[15] which in 2018 were then linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.[16] The ambition of the National Performance Framework is to create a more successful country, to give opportunities to all people living in Scotland, increase the wellbeing of people living in Scotland, create sustainable and inclusive growth and reduce inequalities and give equal importance to economy, environment and social progress. The eleven National Outcomes are purposively designed around the needs of the population rather than sectoral boundaries. Consequently towns and town centres can play a significant role in contributing towards meeting them. For example four of the National Outcomes have particular relevance to towns (We live in communities that are inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe; we value, enjoy, protect and enhance our environment; we are creative and our vibrant and diverse cultures are expressed and enjoyed widely; we have thriving and innovative businesses, with quality jobs and fair work for everyone).

13. In setting the National Outcomes, the Scottish Government comes under a legislative requirement to consider inequalities. Scotland has an inequalities problem, often focused around place. These inequalities are substantial and systemic and the disparities they reflect are damaging both in social and economic terms. We must become more inclusive in our places and our actions. We have to develop a healthier country based around wellbeing and a more equal, fairer and resilient population and communities. The emergency created by climate change provides a further imperative, compelling us to protect our planet and build a sustainable, resilient and more local society and its economy.

14. Towns and town centres can be an integral part of delivering these ambitions, given their focused resource sharing, provision of common experiences and capacity for fairer access and wellbeing enhancement. Towns and town centres can be organised to be more resilient, healthier for our population and communities and deliver enhanced wellbeing for all citizens. Towns and town centres can be positive foci for activities, as through local entrepreneurial innovation and interdependencies and creative and cultural (including heritage) experiences and engagement. Town centres provide for a stronger experiential engagement as they focus on shared experiences and provide settings, including spaces, for people and community to come together, socialise, gather, linger and make connections. These social, cultural and other connections and interactions vary by age, gender, disability, disadvantage and other characteristics reinforcing the multi-faceted nature of, and opportunity for towns and town centres. There is a need to provide more space for people in towns. This will likely involve removal of car-focused space in some parts of towns and town centres and a refocusing on access, movement and spaces for people. The experimentation during the pandemic in this regard was informative and showed what could be done, albeit on a temporary basis. There is a major responsibility to make sure towns and town centres deliver though the exact nature of this in a town or town centre is necessarily dependent on local characteristics, requirements and needs.

15. Town centres are concrete examples of place. Place-based working takes account of the unique characteristics of every place, including town centres, and directs activities to a place so as to maximise combined impact. The Place Principle notes that place is where people, location and resources combine to create a sense of identity and purpose and places are at the heart of addressing the needs and full potential of communities. A collaborative, equality-focused participative approach across all sectors of a place and community enables better outcomes for everyone and increases opportunities for people and communities to shape their own lives. Communities, third sector, local authorities and other organisations (including commercial ones) need to work and plan together to help people improve their lives, support inclusive and sustainable economic activity and create more successful, healthier and greener places. Town centres can be the physical space where much of this can come together, enabling people to live well locally.

16. The scope of the current Town Centre Action Plan is possibly limited in addressing these greater challenges and ambitions we now face. The actions from the Town Centre Action Plan have had local impacts, improving the local position. The themes have real potential but have perhaps been constrained by aspects of the wider context and variable adoption and investment. Where they have been endorsed and used by local authorities, partnerships and communities progress has been, and is being, seen. The overarching aims and the themes thus appear to remain appropriate, though their execution can be accelerated and there could be useful additions or amendments, reflecting our National Outcomes and the requirements for better, healthier, greener and more sustainable town centres, organised around all in our communities.

17. Arising from the Place Principle, the 2020 Programme for Government committed to establishing a Place Based Investment Programme,[17] linking and aligning place-based funding initiatives and ensuring that all place based investments are shaped by the needs and aspirations of local communities. This is a significant and welcome step forward. This programme will impact through four specific over-lapping and inter-connected areas:

Community Wealth Building: Places where community can shape their own future. Where interventions and investments support local businesses, and decisions are taken for the benefit of the whole community. With anchor collaborations acting as local agents of change, making their collective financial power work for their local places. Places that are not only successful in retaining and attracting population but also in attracting and retaining wealth within their communities.

Community led Regeneration: Places where communities take coordinated action to respond to local challenges and opportunities. Places that are physically changing to reflect the concerns and aspirations of the people who live there. With strong, local controlled, enterprising community organisations owning and developing land and buildings to meet local priorities. Places where local people are making local change happen.

20-minute Neighbourhoods: Places that provide easy, convenient access to most of the services and facilities that you need in your daily life. Being able to live and work locally, pursuing opportunities, learning and wellbeing in your own neighbourhood. Being supported and cared for locally in a place that offers quality of life in nurturing and sustainable surroundings. With local infrastructures, active travel networks, and the connections which make it possible to bring together essential activities from across the sectors, located at the heart of communities.

Town Centre Action: Healthier, greener and more sustainable urban and rural centres, where social renewal and economic recovery is evident on the ground. Remade places which directly respond to the specific needs of their local communities. With reimagined high streets where public, third, community and business sector activities are clustered - generating footfall, social interaction, economic activity and a shared purpose, Town centres which are lived in and enjoyed by the whole community.

18. Other strands of change also impact on town centres. The Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB)[18] is focused around driving the move to net zero emissions, promoting inclusive growth and addressing demographic change and enabling people to flourish. The Vacant and Derelict Land Taskforce[19] has identified how we can better use our physical land resources and a new Vacant and Derelict Land Investment Programme will be available in 2021 as part of the Climate Change Plan update.[20] Improving and integrating transport and increasing public and active travel are parts of the National Transport Strategy.[21] Carbon conscious places[22] have linked many of these strands together into a new way of thinking about development. Greenspace generally, but specifically in towns has become a focus of improving the environment for people. The Infrastructure Investment Plan[23] and the City Region and Regional Growth Deals[24] will have an impact on place through major focused investment. Digital concerns over smart towns and cities and providing appropriate digital connectivity, access and take-up for businesses, organisations and individuals have become increasingly important (Connecting Scotland).[25] All of these add to the narrative that town centres can help deliver major benefits and advance attainment of our national priorities.

19. There are also particular requirements for our islands.[26] In December 2020 Island Communities Impact Assessments (ICIA) Guidance was published and the Review of Decisions Regulations, as detailed in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 will be brought into force. By undertaking an Island Communities Impact Assessment, all relevant authorities will, in essence, be 'island proofing' legislation, policy, strategies and services where those are considered likely to have an effect on an island community which is significantly different from its effect on other communities, including other island communities.

20. In early 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic struck with unimaginable consequences, which are still playing out. The pandemic has had a clear impact reinforcing and increasing pre-existing inequalities across Scotland, and has generated new forms of inequality as well as introducing new barriers to equality. It has had major effects on people, businesses, organisations and places. Resilience, including in town centres, has become a major concern. This, together with the increasingly recognised need to address issues around community and climate, has further focused attention on the need for a social and economic renewal as we rebuild and reorder, both coming out of the pandemic crisis and as we address the National Outcomes. The Advisory Group Report on Economic Recovery[27] and the Social Renewal Advisory Board Report[28] provide an overarching agenda for these two areas and in building the recovery we require. The latter in particular focuses on the radical steps needed to address disadvantages and inequalities of all forms in Scotland and to embed equality-focused participation in our actions, including place based actions.

21. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on Scotland's towns and town centres. The move to working from home and the lack of commuting and recreational visiting has changed the pattern of movement and footfall. This has been most keenly felt by businesses (retail and hospitality especially) in city centres (the lack of commuters and visitors), town centres (where many businesses have been closed during lockdowns) and visitor attractions and cultural, creative and entertainment venues. People have tended to stay local, relied on local facilities and community and have begun to reassess their priorities and what is important to them. This could have far-reaching effects enhancing the role of local neighbourhoods and small town centres, but adversely impacting on city centres. How and when things will settle down remains unknown at this time. For many the pandemic has caused significant hardship. During the pandemic the incredible partnership response across communities, the third sector, Scottish and local government delivered, including at a hyper-local level, the emergency help people needed. A lot of this partnership working was a result of simply getting on and doing things with finance focused on the point of delivery. The sense of local, community and neighbourhood generated was a strong theme during the pandemic. It is one on which to build, as demonstrated further in the retail and town centre context by the very well received and supported Scotland Loves Local[29] campaign of Autumn 2020 and the Towns and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) resilience and recovery funds.[30]

22. In summary, the Town Centre Action Plan has produced progress and remains a clear statement of actions and objectives. The significantly altered context, and latterly the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic however have accelerated the need to extend the vision for Scotland's towns. From the National Outcomes, the change of context and the evidence provided, we believe towns and town centres must be more focused around people, the planet and our economy. We need town centres to meet the needs of all local people, in a local and sustainable way and provide a variety of opportunities for local inclusive economic and social activity, including increased local community and entrepreneurial ownership, services and assets to help build local resilience. The vision for towns and town centres the Review Group adopted therefore is:

"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."


Email: DLECJBSJRRU@gov.scot

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