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.

People, Planet and the Economy; the Issues for Town Centres

23. The goals of wellbeing of people, planet and the economy may well be mutually reinforcing, but this cannot be assumed. Advancing economic outcomes without regard for social and environmental outcomes leads to inequalities and unintended consequences, which in the case of climate change may be irreversible. Similarly, economic growth per se does not address inequalities of place and amongst and between groups in society. The challenge is to identify where this is the case, understand the consequences and interactions and take informed decision to promote the best overall wellbeing outcome, through the potential of a new future for Scotland's towns and town centres. Town centres should be delivering better outcomes for people through access to opportunities, goods, services, facilities, social- cultural-, creative- and green- spaces. They should be the heart of a local, resilient, entrepreneurial economy, increasingly enabled digitally, which reduces inequalities and promotes inclusivity and enriches the wellbeing of all in the community. Town centres should be accessible places people want to go to for a variety of reasons, opportunities and interactions.

24. Not all towns currently meet the needs and ambitions of their communities and the country in these ways. There is of course a range of practice across Scotland as each town is a unique place. There are many local circumstances and issues. Overall however we know that many individuals and communities across Scotland suffer poor health, adverse social outcomes and inequalities, in part due to the places they live in, and can access. Those with the worst outcomes in society tend to live in those places that have some of the poorest physical and social environments. These communities and citizens often lack access to necessary resources and support to improve their quality of life. Evidence shows that if we can improve the quality of these environments (including town centres) we can improve the wellbeing of the people living there and contribute to a reduction in health and other inequalities (whether from gender, disability, race, poverty or age for example).

25. In the Review Group's evidence gathering a range of common factors affecting towns was consistently identified and can be summarised via our people, planet and economy constructs:

People: whilst there are many examples where people are working to turn their towns around, this does take time and for some there remains a sense of 'distance' or 'disappointment/disillusionment' with some towns and town centres. This is a function of the issues of access(ability) and lack of activities and attractiveness which produce a lack of compelling reasons to visit, and also to an incomplete sense of engagement with, or 'ownership' of the town centre. Some people and communities felt adrift from their town centre, the businesses, organisations and spaces it contains, and the decision-making around it. For some, the town centre could be people unfriendly with an incoherence and/or lack of streetscape, design and functions and often competing uses for spaces (e.g. traffic and pedestrians). Their local town sometimes had little to offer them, both commercially, but also socially, environmentally e.g. green space and culturally. Safety issues around gender or night-time activities are also concerns.

26. Some local communities (and especially groups within, whether on the basis of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, poverty or age for example) felt a lack of engagement in decisions over the town centre and its future. Engagement could be seen to be partial, limited and often not carried out effectively, accessibly or sustainably. Some decisions were often done to people and not co-produced with people. The reality for local authorities, having to focus on statutory functions more than on places (town centres) due to budgetary constraints, also led in some cases to a sense of lack of place-based engagement. Demands on these statutory services have increased over this period. Local authorities have also often seen a reduction of skills, confidence and capacity over the last decade or more as resources have reduced and requirements risen. Even where local authorities (and indeed communities themselves) wanted to focus on town centres and engagement, they could be hindered by this lack of capacity, skills and confidence. Town centres can be difficult to "manage" especially where there is limited local involvement. Whilst there are examples of excellent practice across Scotland, inconsistency of approach remains an issue. There may therefore be a need for greater focus on developing skills, capacity and confidence, but also a need for a better understanding of what has worked, where, and how this may be transferable.

27. Some groups have particular access requirements when it comes to being involved in meaningful engagement and can therefore easily end up being excluded, regardless that this may not have been deliberate. Consequently, decisions are not informed by those perspectives and this can compound their exclusion. It can result in the often unwitting introduction of new barriers to using town centres including accessing shops, facilities and services. This has been seen in the proliferation of signage and other impediments in pedestrian spaces and in some of the temporary COVID-19 transport and road space adjustments. Community engagement and organisational infrastructures are also therefore important. Anchor organisations that reach out and connect with marginalised people within communities, can provide a focal point for connections. Organisations that are citizen-led such as centres for inclusive living and access panels, led by people who are marginalised are also significant. There is a key role for the third sector and community organisations, with expertise in engagement methods including co-production, accessible processes, community development, and with networks that go deep into communities to reach and support those marginalised.

28. Some of the distance people felt to town centres was also due to the nature of the organisations present and their linkage or not with local society at a more than an economic transactional level. This may be less of a feature in smaller and more rurally located towns. There is a need for more community centred ownership and/or management of space in town centres (and not just for commercial operation reasons) and a focus on the development of opportunities for local entrepreneurship and creativity, including for example opportunities for specific age, gender or disability cohorts. Some of this activity may be commercial but some needs to be creative, cultural and otherwise life-enhancing, and also include health, education and other public services. Decisions about locations of such facilities are very important to people and town centres.

29. Planet: Without radical change Scotland's ambitious climate change targets are not going to be met, and certainly not within the statutory timescales. The current system is unsustainable and meets neither local nor national needs. There are a number of broad national aspects to potential responses to climate change being developed and these will bring in fundamental changes that would likely impact on people and towns. This is clear in infrastructure (housing, digital and transport sectors for example), where we have to consider operating and living very differently to protect scarce resources. Town centres are a natural ally to such national changes, being in a position to focus and reduce resource requirements. It will though be important in this to ensure that action to mitigate climate change does not inadvertently make town centres less inclusive for some people. Such changes are however insufficient on their own, as given the decentralisation and disaggregated development of the last 60 years, we probably need to limit and then reverse some activities to become more sustainable and meet agreed targets.

30. The decentralisation and disaggregation of functions, combined with and driven by the rise in reliance on private transport in the form of the car, has resulted in a hollowing out of activities from town centres and the construction of off-centre mono-format developments, not prevented by a planning regime and fiscal imbalances that have encouraged such developments. This is evident in retailing but is not restricted to that sector. Such development has left local services, assets and centres being insufficient to meet local needs. Too often the "local" services are located on separate, disaggregated, often comparatively inaccessible (without a car) sites. Many services and activities have been moved away from town centres, increasing distance to travel and privileging one mode of private transport. When developments e.g. housing have occurred at the edge or away from towns they are not often building in the appropriate local services or transport variety and become car-dependent neighbourhoods. This has resulted in excess and less active travel and issues around sustainability of public transport services. The current system can be environmentally damaging, impacting negatively on many people's lives and on town centres.

31. Within some town centres, vacancy and dereliction has become more common and is most obvious in vacant premises and buildings especially, but not only, above ground floor. There is a considerable amount of vacant and unoccupied space in and around town centres. Each space may often be in the hands of distant organisations and individuals (and there can be issues in identifying ownership). Even where buildings are occupied, many of the wealth creating impacts are not felt locally due to the nature of the ownership and/or occupied use. A lack of local ownership and limited sense of local community and economy can impact the sense of place and reduce its interdependence and resilience, adversely affecting general social and economic wellbeing. Flows (wealth, profit, decision-making) out of the local town and town centre add to the sense of waste and distance. There is often only a limited locally focused circular economy, again increasing unsustainable activities, and reducing local resilience to external shocks such as Brexit and COVID-19. Cultural and creative activities are often marginalised as not being commercial enough. All this adds further to the sense of "distance" or disinterest people can feel from the town centre. It also reduces attractiveness to visitors.

32. Whereas in the past town centres were the sustainable, equitable, entrepreneurial, cultural, social, creative, commercial, environmental and local focus of a town, the current situation has developed in some places into one which has produced systemic unfairness, is unsustainable in environmental and climate terms and where decisions are made seemingly irrespective of the local needs and requirements and are not based around local sustainability, equitable wellbeing, resilience and wealth-building. Towns can thus struggle to meet our climate and wellbeing goals, despite their natural advantages.

33. Economy: The current state of town centres often does not deliver a fairer and healthier society which is an aim of the Scottish Government. The changing nature of economy/practice through the rise in online activity has pointed up the cost (and tax) structures of operations and places (e.g. Airbnb and Uber). This is most clearly felt again in retailing, but is true in other sectors as well (e.g. general businesses, hospitality and some commercial and public services). Out-of-town operations (well beyond retailing) benefit from operating and development costs cheaper than in town centres, and their ease of operation on purpose-built sites also reduces costs and improves corporate or organisational performance. The wider societal cost in terms of wellbeing of planet and people remains unconsidered. Town centres have become too expensive in comparison to such other spaces. The tax system and the rates, rents, charging and other costs have all impacted on this and in many ways actively generated and supported these damaging effects. This has driven out or restricted many entrepreneurial, community and local enterprises and initiatives and in some places community and local ownership and innovation can be difficult to introduce and sustain.

34. Some of the reasons behind this adverse differential for town centres lie in the nature of ownership and operation. The complexity and legacy of town centres and their shared provision drive some of the cost structures. In comparison, other formats have few constraints. We see this starkly in the issue of car parking in and out of towns and the differential costs and charges. The impact of ownership is also seen in the difficulty on occasions of getting things done (who owns it/resistance to be involved) and often reflects the lack of local stake holding in the local town centre. The rise of Airbnb in some (city) centres has compounded this lack of local community. Independent and small businesses, and community and co-operative operations, are all more locally embedded and inter-dependent, enhancing local resilience and wellbeing, but are currently marginalised in many town centres.

35. The net result of this has been the flight of many activities from town centres and a resultant lack of diversity and over-reliance on some sectors or uses. This lack of variety of attraction in turn reduces town centre footfall and reasons to visit. Despite decades of discussion, progress on more people living in town centres is painfully slow, the lack of diversity of uses reduces attractiveness and some town centres have become a mixture of disorganised, sometimes vacant buildings, limited uses and variable streetscapes often dominated by car borne traffic. Some parts of town centres can be hard for people to access and navigate, may not encourage interaction and are not necessarily pleasant or safe spaces, with a lack of greenspace and other more social settings. Town centres (especially larger ones) are comparatively difficult and more complex and expensive places in which to operate either commercially or non-commercially.

36. All of this has been said before. The issues have been recognised for some time and some steps have been taken to address some of them. Some towns and some councils have done very positive jobs, but overall the problems remain, often not helped by short term or piecemeal funding for projects and local authorities. Some of the steps taken have involved projects funding specific buildings or spaces in town centres. These can have a beneficial impact at the specific local and site levels. Often though it is based on short-term funding that is limited in comparison to the scale of the problem. Even then most such opportunities are capital-only projects and organisations often struggle due to the lack of revenue to get going and survive the initial years. This is particularly the case for community and volunteer based projects, where the lack of revenue, time and expertise can restrict their potential. Those that succeed often do so despite the situation and system, rather than because of it. Focused attention on communities and place has in the past been too piecemeal and partial; it is thus positive to see much of this being brought together under the Place Based Investment Programme. More can then perhaps be done to ensure alignment of, and length and type of investment across all initiatives.


Email: DLECJBSJRRU@gov.scot

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