The Policy Framework and the Town Centre Action Plan
37. Since the National Review of Town Centres and the development of the Town Centre Action Plan there has been significant improvement in the position of towns and town centres in the policy frameworks of Scottish Government and local authorities. A range of policy and approaches have been introduced and championed. A positive policy framework is in place, tools to use this framework have been developed and place based initiatives (of which town centre renewal is one) have been placed at the heart of Government. This is welcome, significant and important. Maintaining and driving such policy forward across Scotland and embedding across all local authorities and other organisations and partners will assist town centres and their communities deliver against their, and our, ambitions.
38. We can point to examples where local authorities have as a whole or in specific towns focused their attention on the town centre(s) and on strong support for the town centre(s), including town centre management in the specific and broad senses. The work on Town Centre First in Aberdeenshire, the East Ayrshire Vibrant Communities programme, Falkirk, Dumbarton and Kilmarnock all focusing council offices at the heart of towns in key buildings, the Paisley vision and the North Ayrshire piloting of Community Wealth Building are illustrations of what has been possible. Lessons from these are being learned and more local authorities are moving towards such focus and implementation. At a community level there are many good examples of community focused developments which have made a difference in their local town centres, including many Development Trusts and the well-regarded Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries. The issue therefore is about accelerating and spreading such developments more widely and making it easier to achieve these local and national goals.
39. A different form of town centre partnership is the Business Improvement District (BID) and we have now had almost 15 years of learning about BIDs in Scotland. By pooling and sharing resources, local businesses, working with other private, public and third sector partners, take a leading role in improving local economic conditions by delivering an agreed package of investment and initiatives over and beyond that delivered by local and national government. The revised model developed in Scotland in recent years is a more innovative, flexible and holistic approach, which leverages greater corporate-community-public partnerships, to deliver the ambitions of local businesses and communities. This has encouraged more diversity within the Improvement Districts project with the development of Maritime, Food and Drink, Tourism, Cultural, Innovation, Energy and Community Improvement Districts to sit alongside traditional City and Town Centre Improvement Districts. Improvement Districts to be successful often need scale and so may not always be suited to smaller towns and communities.
40. The policy framework, deriving from the National Outcomes attempts to improve places and town centres for all people and in a variety of ways. This attempt at broad impact requires engagement and co-production with communities, but also demands that the benefits are felt by those communities. This points to the need for more local community based opportunities, an equality-focused participative approach, strengthening of resilience at the local level and a concerted focus on place and all components of its community.
41. Two significant questions emerge though for the Review Group's work:
(a) What is stopping such developments in many town centres?
(b) What would encourage further and more rapid development of this form?
42. The National Review of Town Centres called for an enhanced policy framework. This has been delivered through Town Centre First, the Place Principle and the recent steps in the Place Based Investment Programme. It also called for action on data provision at the town and town centre level. Slower progress has been made on widespread, routine data on towns and town centres. The development of Understanding Scotland's Places has provided a consistent and comparable baseline for towns but none exists for town centres and data is routinely published at local authority or other (dis)aggregated administrative levels. The lack of accurate, consistent, comparable and timely data remains a hindrance to the understanding and targeted improvement of our town centres (and often towns). Given the focus in national and local policy and planning this remains a major gap. There is also a need to broaden our understanding, collection and use of data to focus on issues that matter in town centres and to communities. These include routine consideration of lived experience and other qualitative inputs, data on ownership and occupancy of property and the inclusion of new measures linked to National Outcomes such as in environmental, social inclusion and wellbeing dimensions.
43. The Town Centre Action Plan focused on six themes. These six themes have been progressed in a variety of ways. Many of these demonstrator and local projects are successful in their own right and provide valuable lessons. Of the six themes in the Town Centre Action Plan enterprising communities has perhaps had the least attention and shown the least progress. This may be due to the lack of community and local involvement in decision-making and opportunities. Across all the themes and projects however the same two questions re-emerge; why are these examples not followed more widely and how can we get more rapid and broader development?
44. This becomes important when we consider the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood. In its frequently understood form, the 20-minute neighbourhood is perhaps viewed as being more suited to larger towns and cities. The key though is not to focus on the number of minutes, but to focus on the lifestyle and lived behaviour where people choose to travel less, move more and increase connection with people and nature. The nub of the 20-minute neighbourhood is that we will choose to travel less when our local areas offer us more; when we have a purpose in stepping out of the door; when our homes are at a density and mix of housing types that provides the critical mass for local services and amenities to thrive; when we embrace the transforming opportunity for every town centre in Scotland to lead the need to retrofit our existing built environment's impact on our choices and behaviours. Seen in this way the concept has wide applicability but allowing for local variation. In examining the 20-minute neighbourhood for its applicability for Scotland, the Review Group asked if there were any barriers to its being implemented? This misapprehension of local fit or appropriateness appears to be one barrier, but it is not a real one in the sense that the concept can be adapted to the local circumstances. A town centre may be a 20-minute neighbourhood, but a larger town may also have several other such neighbourhoods. A further barrier though was identified as a need for stronger national policy support to enable a consistent and comprehensive policy framework that can be more confidently applied to the 20-minute neighbourhood.
45. Town Centre First is not a statutory requirement. There is a need to further formalise the position and the priority for towns and town centres in the planning process. The development of the National Planning Framework permits an opportunity to do this and to make towns and town centres (and where appropriate the 20-minute neighbourhood) a core part of the planning process for the local area. This is not to be prescriptive but to ensure that towns and town centres are seen as the place in which development and activity will be focused. The nature and shape of that will depend on the local community and its needs.
46. Whilst there are good examples of place focus and development, we need a wider take-up of such approaches. As noted earlier though, there is a capacity and skill gap at many levels. It is evident in the lack of consistent transfer of policy into practice around town centres across local authorities and elected members. The policy framework is not being translated consistently into actions, and where it is, the impact may be diluted. There may also be unresolved tensions and conflicts over policy and its impacts that require clarification and resolution. Resources have been constrained over at least a decade and many community and place focused positions have been removed or unfilled. We recognise as well that towns, local authorities and community and other local volunteer, representative and association groups, as well as a range of other partners or structures (e.g. BIDs) exist in a multi-agency, multi-layer system. There is enthusiasm and often no little skill, but they are forced to navigate a complex landscape, including that for funding, which as well is often short term. Related to this, engagement with local communities and community groups (and this can also be a complex landscape) as well as other stakeholders does not seem to be working everywhere across all groups. If the aim is to build a fairer, more sustainable and inclusive country, then this will need to be addressed on a consistent basis. We need to be clearer about what the barriers are that prevent this and seek to remove them.
47. There is a further aspect to answering the two questions above. If the policy framework is sufficiently broad, though could be strengthened, and we can show some local authorities, community and third sector groups doing good things and that demonstrator projects are working at the local level, then why is it that more town centres are not in a better place to meet our national goals? Some of this is beyond the remit of this Review Group but would likely make substantial differences to particular groups with consequential effects on communities and town centres e.g. changes in social care support so that people who require it can fully participate, revised national and local transport policy, enhanced national living wage or basic income to better support individuals and families. The larger point though is whether town centres (and local authorities, community groups and partner organisations) are constrained by the system as a whole? There would for example appear to be activities that we permit or indeed support that are damaging to town centres. It is a valid question to ask therefore
(c) What activities should we stop supporting or doing?
48. In the town centre context this is clearly related to the imbalance in the cost structures between town centres and non-town centre activities. If town centres are potential solutions to meeting many of our social, economic and climate challenges then we need to support them more strongly. However doing this alone is not enough and there will never be enough money to meet all needs, especially in a post-COVID-19 world. It is therefore as important to stop supporting those activities which are not helping us meet these goals. This suggests a need to reconsider aspects of planning and fiscal policy to ensure we are supporting the right things. Why for example is there a financial benefit to greenfield and off-centre site development? Why is use of such sites cheaper than equivalent uses in town centres? Why are digital services e.g. internet shopping so privileged and why are many of these businesses paying so little corporate tax? Why is it more difficult to develop and operate in town centres than elsewhere? The Town Centre Action Plan currently says too little about such issues.