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.


49. The changing context for town centres compels action to be taken to deliver radical change. If we simply continue as we are then there can be no reasonable anticipation of town centres either contributing fully to meeting National Outcomes or having a sustained recovery from the current position some of them are in. We need to work assiduously and continuously to improve them. Many local authorities are altering their focus to enable a renewed emphasis on and improvements in town centres. We also however need to address the context in which they operate and the challenges (notably climate change, Brexit, wellbeing and health and inequalities exacerbated or created by COVID-19) we, and town centres face. There are opportunities around a new emphasis on localism and community and a sense of optimism that we should and can rebuild our communities and town centres better. We also have to be realistic though. We have spent decades bringing town centres to this point, and elements of the current system are structured against them. Reinventing and rebuilding town centres is not easy and may not be quick, but we must accelerate the process.

50. There is a lot of interest in and work going on around the subject of place into which town centres can fit. We welcome many of the recent developments from the Scottish Government as for example on planning, climate change response, island communities, housing, transport, infrastructure and rural agencies and especially the sense that these are aligning more closely. We have tried to be aware of this work and link to ideas emerging from it. We ask that our recommendations are considered carefully by this and other work as it emerges over the coming months.

51. Our recommendations are of three forms.

(a) First we aim to strengthen the existing national policy context, which whilst positive towards place and town centres, needs to provide more formal and structured prioritisation, support and encouragement.

(b) Secondly we have recommendations around the need to consider stopping supporting or advancing aspects which cause harm to town centres, our vision for them and our ambitions for tackling climate change and other issues.

(c) Thirdly, we focus on activities and initiatives where building on and extending current approaches to renewed town centres would accelerate progress. A key dimension will be better learning from such activities to provide the lessons and actions for other town facing similar issues.

52. 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

There are three components to this recommendation. The aim is to improve and encourage the stronger focus on town centres which is emerging in many local authorities and areas, ensure this is carried out in partnership with all elements of the local community and accelerate the enhanced and focused use of data on towns and town centres, derived from an expanded variety of data. The need for this recommendation stems from the desire and requirement to focus on towns and town centres more formally, and further strengthen their position, to try to ensure that local communities are fully engaged and that appropriate evidence is used in decision-taking and impact monitoring.

53. (a) Towns and town centres to be included and prioritised in National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4)

There is a general agreement about the role of place, the Town Centre First concept and the Place Principle. We have seen considerable steps to using this as a framework for planning and decision making. In some instances though there may be a need to improve inclusive practices with communities. We need to further embed town centres as central aspects of social and economic development so as to cut through the complexity of the current situation. The most appropriate ways to do this are to refocus and reemphasise Town Centre First and place towns and town centres at the core of NPF4, prioritise and direct resources to them and to require that town centre plans be produced and implemented. Many authorities are moving in this direction but the added focus and encouragement this recommendation provides will help embed place and town centres more fully. This recommendation should usefully encompass the consideration of the local potential for 20-minute neighbourhoods (see Recommendation 3).

54. The recent Scottish Government Position Statement on NPF4[33] is a positive step forward and can be developed further as progress on NPF4 is made. The Position Statement underlines the importance of city and town centres, signals that support for development in town centres will be strengthened and sets out a commitment to applying the 20-minute neighbourhood concept through revised planning policies. It also signals that to support town centres and reflect climate change commitments, there may be a need to restrict out-of-town retail and leisure to help us transition away from car-dependent developments. The Position Statement confirms that the Scottish Government will build on this review and apply the Place Principle to re-imagine city and town centres, promote them as live-able places and diversify and balance the use of land and buildings in town centres so they benefit all people and stimulate investment. This is a positive and helpful basis and our three recommendations clearly align with this, but we suggest developing some ideas further.

55. By placing towns and town centres (and 20-minute neighbourhoods) in NPF4, legitimacy for them is generated from national to strategic regional through to local levels. Town and town centre plans should be developed and co-produced with a range of local agencies and the community. It will be important for local authorities and partners (community, public, private, third sector) to ensure that this is done at the appropriate level and embedded within the appropriate existing plan frameworks e.g. local development plans, community planning partnership plans, regional economic plans, rural and island plans, transport and active travel plans. They will need to be fluid and dynamic. The National Planning Framework provides the steer to embed town centres at the local level, by asking for a critical focus on delivering town centre change. When this is allied to the adoption of other place dimensions, as outlined in the Programme for Government, there should be greater security for town centres from unthinking adverse development and a more structured positive focus on town centres across the country. The development of NPF4 should also consider whether aspects of our other recommendations e.g. Recommendation 3: a possible moratorium on aspects of out of town development or the actions to respond to climate change should be included in, or could be enhanced by actions within NPF4.

56. The centrality of towns and town centres in NPF4 also raises a number of implications and consequences. Transport to and from, and movement within, town centres requires to be more closely integrated with planning decisions from the outset. This could be usefully integrated further via the development of NPF4. There is also an opportunity to consider the relevance of the Use Classes Order for town centres and the desirability of a revision perhaps to a more general Town Centre Use Class. This could be utilised in connection with a wider take-up of other measures such as Simplified Planning Zones, Permitted Development Rights and Masterplanning Consents to ease development in town centres, including a focus on conversion and bringing into use the upper storeys of buildings where appropriate. This is needed to ensure more rapid adaptation to changing circumstances than is currently the case. Care however must to be taken in design of these measures to avoid potential unforeseen consequences (mono-culture, lack of variation and viability) from such measures and to maintain quality standards of development.

57. (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.

There is nothing stopping the development of town centre plans prior to any formal adoption, suggestion or guidance via NPF4. Indeed the urgency of the situation we face demands that as the direction we are going to take has been set out in the Position Statement on NPF4, action to begin to construct and deliver this at a town level should start now. Many of the tools needed at the local level to develop town plans are already in existence and in some authorities and communities in use. It has been demonstrated that those towns that develop a shared strategic vision and a plan for the town and especially the town centre have a stronger sense of place and management and are more likely to develop more strongly. This though is dependent on the plan's development with the community and its implementation with monitoring and evaluation being inclusive, transparent and publicly accountable.

58. There is an opportunity to align these town plans with the National Performance Framework (in addition to NPF4) to ensure a greater consistency of outcomes. National guidance on the development of strategic development of town plans could usefully sit alongside the revised (2021) "how to" Towns Toolkit. Town centre plans need to be developed in association with all elements of the community and other partners and deliver on the vision outlined nationally but articulated locally. This will require focus on the structure and function of town centres, on the access to and wellbeing of the place and the community in the broadest sense and on the economic development and especially local businesses and community operations in the town centre. Aspects of housing in, transport to, opportunities in, the services, functions and spaces provided and the ownership and local linkages present and desired, all need to be considered and included where appropriate. Local service accessibility will also be critical.

59. In many authorities, areas and partnerships exiting attempts to do this are sometimes thwarted by a lack of skills and resource. It is also not necessarily a simple or a straightforward matter and is becoming more complex in terms of the context. There are statutory duties for such processes and the development of any town and town centre plan must address the Equality Act, the Public Sector Equality Duty, the Fairer Scotland Duty and utilise the National Standards on Community Engagement. There is a massive, positive opportunity to be inclusive and to ensure that voices are heard that have been previously often marginalised. Embedding this (and especially the lived experiences of these groups, and for example Access Panels) from the outset, having an equality-focused participative approach throughout and maintaining involvement, is critically important (though not a new "ask") and is a key component of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the report of the Social Renewal Advisory Board.

60. Developing a plan or vision for the town or town centre is an important step, but it needs to be fully engaged with the local community and bring together different stakeholders. Communities should not only "have a say" but be integral to this process. We have learned from the experience of community development, culturally-led regeneration and the local response to COVID-19 that locally owned and rooted solutions are much more effective than projects driven by organisations from outside the area. We have seen in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic that to encourage participation in decision-making communities need to see they have been given permission and authority to act, both through local authorities cutting red-tape to make it easier to participate, and through the provision of flexible funding. It is no longer enough for a single community representative to be asked to join a decision-making board, but rather community participation should be planned and budgeted for from the start. COVID-19 has shone a light on existing inequalities - income, health, gender, race, employment and education. It has exacerbated the challenges faced by many people already living in poverty. People living on low incomes are more likely to rely on public services than other sectors of society and to be more affected by the climate emergency. Therefore, it is vital their voice is heard in planning the town and town centre focused response we need to meet our national challenges, including climate change.

61. These town plans need to be focused on people, the planet and the economy and in delivering the vision of the Town Centre Action Plan adapted for local circumstances. They need to begin with people, as above, and be based around people, their needs and aspirations, not only the built infrastructure. A range of tools, including the Place Standard and Towns Toolkit are available to help in this, but they need to be used in collaboration with all components of the local community. Aspects of inclusion, equality, accessibility and wellbeing will be critical to future success. In terms of wellbeing, the soon to be published Public Health Planning Themes for Wellbeing and Place could be a good starting point and should be incorporated and measured against at the town level. Climate change needs to be addressed via a focus on the green aspects of development and movement and on the potential for the enhancement of local and circular economies. Town centres need to be designed to be accessible, both to and from but also within the town centre. This raises questions of the mode of travel and transport, but the starting point needs to be in building up active and public travel and limiting/reducing car borne travel where appropriate. The overall economy needs to consider aspects of digital infrastructure and development, the scope for housing, of a variety of forms, including accessible housing and homes in the town centre, and on the need to develop local, small business and community enterprises and businesses to build resilience and engagement. The role of community organisations and local ownership to drive local entrepreneurship and resilience will be significant. Local businesses and community enterprises provide economic and social "glue" to their communities.

62. It is recognised that the approach outlined here will need to be detailed. It comes at a time when local authorities and community groups are struggling with resources and often lack the time, capacity and sometimes skills to cover all this ground. However with the renewed prioritisation for towns and the steps many local authorities are already taking, we believe that this can be delivered by partnership. Strategic development plan teams can be supported by existing bodies such as Scotland's Towns Partnership, Planning and Architecture Service and RTPI Scotland to achieve this focus. Support for community engagement and building local capacity will be important in this and mechanisms for funding this will need to be developed. Some of this will be achieved via the emerging refocusing in local authorities and areas but funding streams under other government initiatives could be used to enhance and focus provision.

63. A key element of the successful delivery of town centre plans will be the engagement across the various communities and users, and not just traditional economic user concerns alone. Integration with other levels e.g. local and community planning and regional planning will be important. The intention in aligning this recommendation with NPF4 is to ensure there is focus, but also no duplication, in town centre plan production. This is not intended as an additional level and planning for town centres and 20-minute neighbourhoods need to be linked in with other strategic planning documents. Plans in themselves can be significant drivers of change, but only if the partners deliver on the shared goals, so it is vital the plan once developed is implemented and public accountability and monitoring is embedded from the outset.

64. (c) Develop a revised and enhanced focus on measurement and data for towns and town centres

Local authorities are very used to measuring and reporting data at the local authority level and in some cases at administrative sub-divisions of their area. Scottish Government also is used to using the local authority as the measurement and reporting unit. This does not really help either towns or town centres as data is rarely reported at this level and often when it is, is on an inconsistent and non-standardised basis i.e. how is the boundary drawn? It is also generally the case that the data that are collected are focused on traditional economic measures of activity and not on the emerging concerns such as inclusive growth, environmental measures, equality, wellbeing and social value. It is clear however that steps to improve the range of measures are beginning to be taken, and there is work on this in a number of national bodies and local authorities. There is an opportunity to embrace a wider range of data types and sources ranging from the lived experiences in communities and towns to new digital streams of behavioural and other data, and to have these focused and reported at the town and town centre level.

65. As a consequence of the Town Centre Action Plan, Understanding Scottish Places (USP) was developed to provide comparable and consistent data on Towns. This has developed into a sound platform, but to be more useful needs to have more data captured more regularly at an agreed town, but also town centre level. For some data, this might be a technical data reporting issue rather than a redesign of the data collection itself. If we are to focus on towns and town centres, then data will be vital to understand the starting point and progress/change. A national approach to this will aid local authorities, communities and town/place managers and allow a degree of national comparison i.e. consistency, transparency, comparability, accountability of data. Very local targeted data could be added to this platform at the town or town centre level for aspects not covered nationally.

66. The USP consortium could be tasked with bringing forward proposals for such developments. The current consortium could usefully be expanded for example to include membership from COSLA, Ordnance Survey, Scottish Government Statisticians and wellbeing, environmental/climate and health economists to capture the breadth required. This broader group should be tasked with establishing what needs to be measured in a town centre context and as a baseline against which progress can be considered. Key measures need to reflect the changed priorities and requirements we place on town centres and go beyond current "traditional" or easy measures. Lived experiences and the impacts of changes on people's lives need to be embedded. A stronger link of this consortium with the digital transformation programme in Scottish Government would be beneficial.

67. 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

The first recommendation concerns national level policy enhancements to better position town centres and the development of local town centre plans and data. Given the context, the state of town centres, the urgency to tackle critical, complex issues such as climate, equality, wellbeing, fairness and social and economic renewal, it remains questionable however whether positive town centre measures and additional limited funding alone, as has been attempted thus far, will be sufficient. A range of ideas and proposals is therefore presented within this recommendation to address this broader picture. They all stem from the proposition that the balance between town centre costs and other (mostly out of town and digital) transactional and channel costs are out of kilter with the overriding national ambitions for carbon reduction and net zero, transport and congestion reduction, wellbeing improvements, social and economic renewal and new models of place resilience. If the aim is to see town centres at the heart of communities, providing more equitable provision for all, and a leading driver to meeting our National Outcomes then they need to be prioritised within a fairer overall system.

68. Some of these proposals may be viewed as controversial and may well be opposed by a range of organisations. Indeed a couple of these ideas have been suggested in the past but have not gained traction. The situation however has continued to deteriorate and our imperatives have been accelerated. These ideas therefore need to be reconsidered. We recognise that there are businesses and jobs which will be affected (both positively and negatively) by some of these proposed recommendations. There could therefore to be a consideration of the timescale and possible transition of some of these actions and the need to smooth what might initially be negative impacts of others, in order to achieve important longer-term national goals and as well as actively support town centres. They ideas are proposed to reflect the changing nature of our economy and its impact on society and to ensure a sounder fiscal base for Government at all levels, whilst addressing the fundamental issue of improving our town centres and meeting our National Outcomes. The prior expectation of simply expecting local authorities to forego income e.g. local rates relief or reducing car parking charging, particularly at this point after a decade or more of budgetary constraints, in order to try to ameliorate the impact of other activities is neither realistic nor sustainable. There may also be a need for encouragement to repurpose some of the decentralised sites as they may be ending their useful lives, possibly accelerated by the impact of the pandemic and the measures more widely being taken to respond to climate change. These issues are all ones the Scottish Government needs to consider as part of a review of policy and practice in this area. Our view is that not addressing such issues will condemn our town centres to a more difficult future and make it difficult to meet our ambitions for wellbeing and climate change response.

69. Not all of the actions proposed here though are with the remit of the Scottish Government. Where they are, the recommendation is clearly directed at the Scottish Government; where the powers are not devolved the Scottish Government should consider how best to engage the UK Government in taking or permitting the actions. We also note that the Scottish Land Commission has established a Working Group on Land and Property Tax.[34] Whilst its initial scope is for devolved competency of property tax the group has a clear priority to look at town centre regeneration and taxation and local authorities. Components of Recommendation 2 should therefore be explored in detail by that more expert tax group in 2021. A balance across the measures is probably needed. Care would also be needed to avoid unintended consequences on some activities e.g. hospitals, developments meeting climate and carbon reduction ambitions. They might also look at the creation of a more permissive risk-based environment to try new approaches to funding and the use of taxation and levies and to consider the role of Non Domestic Rates (NDR), levies and other mechanisms (e.g. TIF, community bonds) to fund focused development opportunities in town centres. Scottish Government should formally ask the Working Group to consider our broad proposals in this area and come up with concrete proposals and timescales for a package of measures.

70. (a) Amendments to Non Domestic Rates (NDR): The NDR system is widely perceived to be operationally broken and unfair, but some form of property use tax makes sense. It needs an overhaul and aspects of the Barclay Review [35] should be revisited and reconsidered. The rates system should be amended so as to reduce rates for town centre uses and increase them elsewhere including for out-of-town uses. The scope of the NDR system should be reconsidered in terms of the rateable value and chargeable rate on all uses and particularly those that serve the final customer, so as to ensure modern channels are reflected properly in the NDR system. This recommendation would apply to all out-of-town activities, and not simply to online retail. Town centres have been deserted by many uses and the intention is to rebalance the situation and thus help reduce inequalities of access.

71. (b) Amendments to VAT: Consideration should be given to the chargeable VAT rate by location and by development type. In particular it would be beneficial to be able to zero-rate developments and/or operations in a town centre, or even a high street. It would also be sensible to reverse the perverse incentive that has a lower VAT rate on new build than on redevelopment. There is a potential role for whole life cycle carbon assessment as a mechanism to help with this where appropriate.

72. (c) Introduce a digital tax: The rates system is no longer suitable as the main way of raising local government finance from local economic activity (though this link is now more tenuous than before). Channels and behaviours have altered and whilst major operators e.g. Amazon have grown enormously, online services have also become vital to many smaller businesses. A digital tax has been discussed for some years but has not materialised. The increase in online sales and home delivery during the pandemic has produced a further shift in channel behaviour and patterns of fulfilment (vans to the home). This shift has increased inequalities and probably added to our carbon emissions and congestion. It has benefitted particular firms, some of which pay limited tax in the UK. These two issues are separate but not unrelated. Common comments against a digital tax are that either the firms are doing nothing illegal or that a digital tax penalises innovation. Both comments miss the fact that we have seen a revolution in this area which has impacted existing businesses and town centres and made taxation streams less reflective of economic activity, generally and locally. If we want to have public transport systems, education, social and health care for example and deliver services for all, we need to protect, retain and reposition government revenue streams. Allowing digital operators or specific firms to either not be included or to effectively opt out increases the burden on existing and responsible (often smaller) businesses. Taxation needs to reflect the society we are now and not what we were. Various models of digital tax thus need to be explored as a matter of urgency (though we recognise care needs to be taken over small businesses and innovative local developments), ideally linked to reducing carbon emissions. Taxation systems generally need to catch up with international operations.

73. (d) Introduce an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy: The current context for car parking massively favours out-of-town locations over town centres, whether that is business, office, leisure, health, education, retail or other space users. With congestion, pollution and climate issues, a reduction in car borne travel and a switch in energy source for vehicles are both necessary to meet our goals. An annual levy on all out-of-town centre car parking spaces (not just retail) would provide local authorities with a revenue stream which could be used to enhance public transport and other active travel modes. In introducing such proposals care will need to be given to not disadvantaging users who use private transport from necessity e.g. some older or disabled people. There are also particular concerns in rural and island areas over potential restrictions on car use and so this will require care and consideration at the local level e.g. Island Communities Impact Assessments. It will be important to recognise that such a proposal will likely be unpopular with some and resisted, as previously seen in the suggested workplace parking levy and in some reactions to space repurposing on roads during the pandemic. Nonetheless if we are serious about reducing emissions and congestion, and improving wellbeing, then there is a need to move in this direction either for workplace parking or as here for wider out-of-town parking (for business and other sectors). It will be necessary to monitor the impact on town centres as there is a desire, where possible, to reduce car transport into and within many town centres as well.

74. (e) Introduce a Moratorium on Out-Of-Town Development: Despite Town Centre First and the Place Principle, out-of-town development proposals can continue to obtain permission by local authorities, thus maintaining support for activities that damage town centres, the climate and exacerbate inequalities. There is a large supply of vacant and derelict land and under-used buildings that could be utilised for more sustainable development. There could also be a more strongly positive presumption in favour of mixed use developments on brownfield sites. In many cases the out-of-town option is chosen for ease and cheapness; our recommendations are meant to help to rebalance this. It might also be appropriate to reinvigorate Town Centre First and reinforce that it is meant to be considered by all organisations. Strengthening this by reference in NPF4 and town centre plans would also help. Even then however it seems perverse, given the potential opportunities available and adverse impacts felt, that we continue to allow out-of-town development (including offices, leisure, hospitality, housing, as well as retail and other commercial) by both private and public bodies. The Town Centre First principle has perhaps not fully achieved its goals, though with some of the recommendations here and further re-emphasis it may do so in time.

75. However to bridge that gap a moratorium on out-of-town development of the form that involves large volumes of car parking should be considered for a period of 5 years. This might be seen as too draconian or too blunt an approach given the likely need for some regionally or nationally important developments on new sites. Nonetheless a moratorium should be the starting point with exceptions permitted only for nationally important exceptional reasons (which could be defined and could for example include major national investments and climate change response actions). Decisions on developments are local matters, but there are over-arching National Priorities to be considered. Developments need to be focused away from out of town car dependent sites where possible and a moratorium is a sound starting point.

76. There are some difficult considerations in this. Not least is enabling and empowering local authorities to resist severe business pressures from developers and others, often on appeal. Strengthened support needs to be considered not only for this moratorium proposal but also for the current situation and the pressures already felt. There is also an issue of the edge-of-town sites and where the "lines" of a moratorium could be drawn. There is much to debate here but the principle needs to drive these decisions and answers to these questions. This would also apply to any (incentivised) repurposing of off-centre sites to redevelop them as sustainable non-car dependent mixed developments.

77. The components of recommendation 2 need to be considered in their entirety. They will however not necessarily be able to be delivered on a simple timescale and there may need to be managed transitions. The Scottish Government needs though to tackle the systemic inequalities that are holding back our town centres and these measures go some way to doing that. Overall they will rebalance towards and enhance town centres, providing a stronger shared and more equal experience for all groups in society. Detailed consideration of the exact measures by other more expert groups is required urgently.

78. Recommendation 3: Expanded and Aligned Funding of Demonstration Projects in Towns and Town Centres.

The first two recommendations provide for a changed context for town centres. They point to an inclusive shared approach to towns, town centres and communities, the need to measure in new ways how towns and town centres meet our changed needs and the requirement to rebalance cost, taxation and development structures to reflect our altered realities and priorities. If they are adopted then the landscape for towns and town centres will be altered positively. One of the components of the Town Centre Action Plan has been the use of targeted demonstration projects to focus investment to test and to show what might be possible in selected (and then adopted more generally) places and situations. These projects have been developed from the local requirements of towns and local activities and needs and have in some cases leveraged private money through partnerships.

79. There are two aspects arising; first the need to have both an increased number and different/extended approaches. This would provide a broader set of demonstrator activities to test new ideas and approaches. It would continue focused investment building on where it has been shown to be beneficial. Secondly there is a need for the learning on existing and new projects to be clearly disseminated amongst, and then used by, local authorities and others for potential wider implementation. The funding for such demonstration projects has been primarily the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Place Based Investment Programme has been allocated a multi-year funding stream to continue this type of activity. This is welcome and significant. Non-governmental funding and wider investment could also be drawn in for specific proposals to build on this. There are also a range of programmes and funds within Scottish Government that have expenditure that is focusing on activities beneficial to town centres. There are quite a number of these often in the areas of some of the demonstrator projects' interests. This provides additional opportunities for communities, local authorities and others. 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. This is already the direction in which the Scottish Government is moving with the Place Based Investment Programme, but the ambition could be expanded. It would be helpful if the Place Based Investment Programme drew together the funding possibilities to assist in focusing developments.

80. Recognising the uniqueness of towns and the different circumstances they face, demonstrator projects need to encompass a range of different settings including rural and island places and towns and be developed with the local community and its needs. Ideally they develop as part of the town centre plan process. They need to be ambitious and meaningful and need to have knowledge exchange and transfer and learning built in from the outset. Such knowledge exchange and transfer would encompass social and environmental aspects as well as traditional economic ones. There is a need to focus on the towns and places suffering the largest inequalities, as the pandemic has pointed up the significance of these. Projects could also be located in the Scottish Government's Community Wealth Building pilot areas, or the City and Regional Growth Deal locations to build on these approaches to economic development and community support. A key component for investment would be the engagement and co-production with the local community allied with the scale of the need in the town or town centre to be tackled, as identified in the town centre plan.

81. The Town Centre Action Plan had six themes. Proactive planning has been considered under recommendation 1 and it is also significant in terms of activities in support of the recommendations below e.g. land assembly and asset purchase. Accessible Services also fits in that recommendation, but also is considered with 20-minute neighbourhoods below. The projects under this recommendation thus focuses directly on the other original themes (vibrant local economies have been combined under enterprising communities). They extend the ideas developed over the last seven years and introduce new emphases, approaches and concepts. Finally a new series of specific interventions are developed under the theme of climate change responses. The intention here is to suggest project areas and ideas that will address issues that have been identified for town centres and the resolution of which will assist at a local level. They should also hold wider learning possibilities. The aim is to improve town centres at the local level but within the wider direction of national town centre improvement by showing the most appropriate ways to do this. Local conditions, assets and needs will always be significant for the exact implementation at the local project level.

82. (a) Town Centre Living Expansion: Whilst there have been demonstrator projects arising since the Town Centre Action Plan and some investments have been made in town centre housing and living, progress remains relatively small-scale. Some of this limited progress is due to the perverse incentives against such development discussed elsewhere in this report but there appear to be other barriers. We need to show how some of the obstacles could be overcome and how to build local mixed tenure systems. For example:

(i) The housing sector could be incentivised to prioritise town centre living, both to increase the volume (potentially setting proportion of housing in town centres and support 20-minute neighbourhoods) and the mix (social, affordable, mixed tenure)

(ii) Local authorities could be given enhanced ability to use more flexible funding to enable town centre living schemes - this should include mixed and intergenerational schemes and development of schemes attractive to a range of users

(iii) Collaborative projects with public, social and private partners could be designed and incentivised to reuse currently vacant space

(iv) Consideration should be given to enhancing Empty House grants/loans to incentivise individuals to do up long-term empty housing in or adjacent to town centres. These could be aligned with existing schemes such as the Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme where appropriate. Council tax rebates for housing reuse of older buildings might be trialled to incentive further in this area.

Care will have to be exercised at a local level to ensure the suitability and affordability of the development, but also to maintain a sufficient balance of housing, public services, social, cultural and economic activity and general town space (including green space) for town centre vibrancy. Scottish Government has produced a draft vision and principles for Housing 2040 which include a principle on the role homes in town centres play in achieving stronger communities. Policy options to achieve this vision are being developed to ensure that the important role housing plays in tackling societal issues including child poverty, homelessness, climate change and inclusive growth is actually delivered. Rejuvenated town centres with more people living in them with accessible and affordable housing is a central part of this overall ambition.

83. (b) Digital Skills and Use in Towns: There has been considerable interest in various concepts around improving digital connectivity, capacity, capability and access at the town and individual levels. Some steps have been taken but in this changing context more could be done to show just what is possible. Equity of infrastructure across Scotland's towns is a critical element for town centre improvement for both business and community purposes. Ability to access (skills and financially) also needs to be addressed, especially in the context of low income households. It might be appropriate to focus such demonstration projects on the smaller and least resilient towns in order to show the true potential for change. This could usefully build on existing work, as in community centres and libraries, which are building understanding and networks around community digital activity. Links to digital transformation activities in government at all levels and to Connecting Scotland would also help. Suggestions include:

(i) Focused digital skills and inclusion programme at town level using the Job Guarantee for young people and other COVID-19 recovery mechanisms. Local expertise needs to be developed for effective support and delivery and to aid recovery in hard-hit places. This will also help build local resilience and business competitiveness and potentially enhance entrepreneurship. Such a programme should seek to link to local businesses and enhance local business digital capacity.

(ii) Extended use of smart technology (internet of things and consistent data capture) to measure against local town centre priorities (for example movement, air quality, energy use)

(iii) Further development of town based service solutions such as town digital platforms and local gift/loyalty cards rewarding local uses, spend and activities (including possibly public transport; bike rental schemes, local work hub usage). This needs to be preceded by the collection and dissemination of current good practice in this area.

The digital space has become increasingly important but is riven by unequal access and capabilities. The proposals here are designed to help overcome personal and business variability and encourage local, collaborative working. Addressing the national roll-out, standard of, and access to overall digital provision is beyond the scope of this review, but is hugely important in ensuring fairer access to services for all and needs to be a central consideration for the government response: this is essential for delivering digital equality.

84. (c) Enterprising Communities: The distance felt by communities from their town centres in many cases is often created by a lack of stakeholding locally within them. We see this in the types of ownership and the vacant properties in many town centres. The ownership pattern of many of the assets diverts sales, profits and interdependencies away from the local community. They tend to produce longer and non-local supply chains. Owning more assets locally and in different ways is one plank of Community Wealth Building. This though has to be about more than owning buildings and has to focus on their strategic use and operation. One use for such community or local authority owned sites can be to develop community and local capacity by introducing opportunities for local start-ups and entrepreneurs and adding to local and circular economies e.g. local services and repair hubs. Community enterprises and businesses can also take-up such opportunities, which could be focused on the social infrastructure to help deliver wellbeing and possibly public sector services, as well as to advance equality. By creating the spaces and the support mechanisms then innovation and entrepreneurship can be accelerated, all the while focusing on local skills, assets and needs. A number of actions can be suggested:

(i) The establishment of a Strategic Acquisition Fund, which given the likely distress in the property market in many town centres could acquire land and buildings where they have strategic worth to the local town and town centre. The resource could come from local authority borrowing but also from other budgets and investment vehicles, including the Scottish National Investment Bank, the Scottish Land Fund and the Vacant and Derelict Land Fund. It would be useful to have such funding held as locally as possible, and it might be appropriate to focus initial attention on town centres in the Community Wealth building pilot areas. It will also be important to ensure upfront support for initial feasibility and development studies and to ensure some initial establishment and running costs.

(ii) These assets could be combined with buildings already owned (and operated) by local authorities and community organisations to provide centres for innovation and entrepreneurship or co-working and other community and collaborative spaces, including creative and cultural activities. A central resource providing expertise around purchase and operation support could be developed to assist in this, operated by collaboration through a range of partners such as DTAS, Scottish Futures Trust, Enterprise agencies and local authorities. It will be important to ensure that community ownership (continues to) enhance participation and wide involvement.

(iii) Inclusive entrepreneurship could be developed as part of this through a focus on targeted investment into such towns and town centres with the greatest need. Building local, more resilient and sustainable economies in these towns around energising local ideas, start-ups and businesses, including social enterprises, will enhance wellbeing to the greatest extent. Specific strands here might target specific groups that have currently unequal opportunities or have not been adequately involved in the past e.g. women, disabled people, Black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs.

85. (d) Climate Change Response: Climate change is the major threat to our society and economy and requires system wide change in behaviours and practices. This is being taken forward by the Scottish Government's Climate Action Plan. This was not explicitly in the Town Centre Action Plan, though the National Review of Town Centres began from the proposition that existing towns and town centres are true "eco-towns". The recognition of the climate emergency has increased interest in the potential for town based action helping our response on climate. We need to build on initial steps and push the scope and scale of what is possible, using as wide a range of partners as possible. Climate change response cannot solely be about incentives over time to exhibit positive change. There will be a need (as in recommendation 2) to alter patterns of activity and behaviours more dramatically and fundamentally. There are many partners working in this arena and there is already action agreed within Scottish Government; the task is to join them up, focus on rapid change in town centres and to bring this all together. In doing this we need to ensure that proposals are inclusive (as for example in travel to town centres). Potential aspects to this for town centres include:

(i) Demonstrator climate action towns to be developed with funding from Lottery, Scottish Government (Climate Action Towns Programme, Place Infrastructure Fund), Zero Waste Scotland and Corporates to show the cumulative effect of change in a place - this aligns with already agreed programmes

(ii) Look to roll out new community owned micro-generation sites to provide local sustainable energy and heat sources. Some of this could be based around historical aspects (water power) and some around new forms of development (wind and solar power) to provide power/energy sources for community use and income

(iii) Programme to build skills and incentivise the retrofit of existing buildings to meet modern requirements for energy efficient and heat use. Focusing these skills in town centres could enhance the local and circular economy. Repurposing and retrofitting older town centre buildings in this way can enhance energy efficiency but also lead to local "green jobs" and skills in local, small businesses. This aligns with the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan.

(iv) Develop schemes to switch space from car access to town centres to public and active travel modes, building in some cases on temporary changes in response to COVID-19. Rebase space priorities to privilege people not vehicles in town centres, whilst working with local businesses to ensure supply and distribution solutions.

(v) Rethink the amount of space provided for social and green settings so as to improve the environment (including safety) of town centre spaces. Removing some derelict buildings to reuse as green space and providing more dwell-type settings and green infrastructure will further enhance wellbeing. Development of town centre pocket forests using biodiversity challenge funds may also be relevant here

(vi) Build on existing research (and research currently being undertaken in Scotland) into the scope for 20-minute neighbourhoods to test the potential in selected (by the community) and different types and sizes of towns for provision of local services and different ownership, density and access.

(vii) Consider ways to enhance the capacity of town centres themselves to adapt to climate change and aid mitigation effects, as for example by the development of green spaces to aid cooling and to absorb rainfall. Carbon conscious place design can assist in this.

86. In putting forward these demonstration projects the intention is to be illustrative and not prescriptive. There is already a lot of activity in these areas; the issues are about enhancing and expanding this, building the learning and knowledge exchange and focusing the activity in towns and town centres of greatest need and potential. Existing programmes of Community Wealth Building, Place Health and Wellbeing, Active and Sustainable Travel, Climate Action and emerging 20-minute Neighbourhood work can all be built upon, reinforced and amplified, adapted as appropriate for the needs of the entire community and town/town centre.


Email: DLECJBSJRRU@gov.scot

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