City Centre Recovery Task Force: report

Co-produced with the Scottish Cities Alliance, this report sets out the specific impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on city centres, and identifies the immediate priorities to support city centre recovery.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Scotland's seven cities are rich and diverse, with their centres home to thousands of people and serving as an economic, social and cultural focal point for their wider regions. They are meeting places for people, business and commerce, custodians of our culture, engines for innovation, centres for education and medical treatment, and magnets for visitors to Scotland.

This interconnection with their wider regions means that city centres have been impacted heavily by the pandemic. (Chapter 2 sets out some of our evidence base for this work.) Essential public health measures during the course of the pandemic, including business closures, domestic and international travel restrictions, and a shift to many city centre-based employees working predominantly from home, have reduced day and night time footfall to historically low levels.

We know that this particularly pronounced impact on city centres has held across Scotland and internationally. While our towns and rural areas have also been impacted, it is generally larger city centres that have seen the greatest drop in footfall, of shoppers, workers, visitors and tourists.[fn] And without people, our city centres cannot thrive.

While the economic effect of the pandemic has been marked, city centres were already experiencing a process of change prior to its onset. The pandemic has heightened and amplified some long-term pre-existing challenges and trends. For example, management surveys suggest hybrid working is becoming the norm for many office-based workers, while the retail sector, a key component part of any city's offer, is undergoing a profound transformation, with more than a quarter of retail sales now taking place online compared to just 3% in 2007.

While we have increasing confidence about moving to a calmer phase of the pandemic, as set out in the Scottish Government's updated Strategic Framework (February 2022), the longer-term implications of changing behaviour patterns are unclear. This ongoing displacement and uncertainty raises fundamental questions about who city centres are for, and how to bring people back into them and restore their vibrancy.

As we begin to rebuild after Covid, the time is now right to focus on city centre recovery in both the immediate and longer term. Cities are extraordinarily resilient, evolving over centuries of changes - and Scotland's cities and their people have the strengths, skills and ingenuity needed to make our city centres the successful, flourishing places we want them to be.

Our recovery must address the harms caused by the pandemic, empower our communities and places, and support inclusive and sustainable economic development – in line with the Scottish Government's Covid Recovery Strategy and ten-year National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET). For our city centres, this means working to maximise economic, social and environmental wellbeing for city centres and their residents, visitors, and supporting the creation of new, good and green jobs. It means maximising the unique market opportunities of city centres to attract and deploy significant domestic and international investment in Scotland, strengthening our position in new markets and industries.

It also means continuing our focus on a just transition to Net Zero, while we work to build an internationally competitive economy founded on entrepreneurship and innovation, promoting and celebrating the entrepreneurial energy that has helped our city centres thrive. It means supporting connection within our city centres, both physically, through clean and efficient transport routes connecting people, and digitally, through investment and infrastructure in our digital systems. And it means working with our cities, their businesses, their organisations and their people, to ensure that we keep a commitment to fairness and equality at the heart of our recovery work.

Establishing the Task Force

Scotland's seven cities and the Scottish Government have for more than a decade worked in partnership, through the Scottish Cities Alliance, to align goals and city policies in line with Agenda for Cities (first published 2011 and updated in 2016). The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, has required a specific and urgent attention to the centres of cities.

With this in mind, the City Centre Recovery Task Force was established in March 2021 to urgently identify the steps we needed to take.

It was led by an Oversight Group comprised of the leaders of the seven cities and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, and set out to answer a principal question:

How can the public, private and third sectors work together to ensure Scotland's city centres have a prosperous future, contributing to inclusive and sustainable growth in our cities and their wider regions?

Collaborative partnerships between all sectors, including residents of city centres, is clearly crucial as we rebound from the pandemic. We know that recovery cannot lie with the public sector alone. We have therefore sought the views of private and third sectors – encompassing, for example, representatives from business, housing, young people and the travel industry – to identify how they have been affected by the pandemic and understand their recovery aims and plans.

We have a keen sense of the existing challenges, so the work of the Task Force has been purposely action-focused throughout. The priority in our dialogue has been agreeing key actions we need to take to revitalise our city centres as we rebuild after the pandemic and achieve the vision agreed by the members of the Scottish Cities Alliance (SCA), including the Scottish Government:

Scotland's city centres will thrive through embarking on a process of innovative change to offer visitors, workers and residents the quality services and facilities they want to access.

Cities will embrace new business and development opportunities that will attract investors; improve productivity; protect and enhance the environment; and aim to make sure all city centre employment is secure and well paid.

The Scottish Government will work in partnership with local authorities, businesses, the third sector and communities to help our city centres continue to make a positive contribution to the Scottish economy.

We agreed that we wanted city centres which were:

  • vibrant, living places;
  • green and well connected, physically and digitally;
  • safe;
  • and working, for businesses, employees, investors, and visitors.

Within the scope of the Task Force, we jointly identified immediate priorities to support city centre recovery and lay the groundwork for this future. We have tested these with a review panel of sectoral representatives and urban policy experts, who have provided valuable insight and challenge. In Chapter 3, we set out what these priorities are; why we consider them important; and what steps we plan to take, working in partnership, to turn our agreement into action that can deliver for our city centres and their economies.

Chapter 4 outlines our wider ambition for city centre recovery over the next five years, and identifies the outcomes we want to work towards. It sets out how the cities, under the umbrella of the Scottish Cities Alliance and with the support of the Scottish Government, will lead work to prioritise, develop and deliver actions underpinning these outcomes.



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