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 4: Putting recommendations into practice

Beyond those immediate areas for action, we have identified a number of outcomes that we want to work towards over the next five years.

These have been carefully chosen to support our collective vision of priorities for city centre recovery: as well as tackling the harm caused to our city centres by the pandemic, they support our wider ambition to create a wealthier, greener and fairer future. The declaration of a climate emergency, the focus on health and wellbeing of the population and the increasing inequalities across society and economy have all come to the fore during the pandemic and are key features of the Scottish Government's Covid Recovery Strategy and National Strategy for Economic Transformation.

This has altered the context for cities, towns and neighbourhoods. These strategies, the independent Review of the Town Centre Action Plan, and the Scottish Government's draft National Planning Framework 4, all emphasise the important role of towns and cities as solutions to the challenges we face – in line with the established Place Principle where people, location and resources combine to create a sense of identity and purpose, that is at the heart of addressing the needs and realising the full potential of communities.

With this in mind, the five-year outcomes for city centre recovery are:

  • 1. increased residential capacity and occupancy in city centres
  • 2. smaller city centre carbon footprint
  • 3. reduction in the amount of vacant and derelict land and property
  • 4. increase in city centre creative, entrepreneurial and startup activity
  • 5. more revenue raising opportunities for local authorities
  • 6. reduction in oversupply of retail, and increase in cultural offer
  • 7. faster and more agile planning decisions

Making city centres more attractive

How to make city centres more attractive places to live, work and visit is at the heart of many of these outcomes. As such, issues around planning and vacant land have been identified as potential areas for investigation by many of the workstreams.

The draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), which was laid in the Scottish Parliament in November 2021, explains how the Scottish Government will work together with local authorities to build sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places. It recognises that our cities and towns are a national asset and reflects on the challenges they are facing as a result of long-term change and the pandemic.

Under NPF4:

  • the role of city centres at the heart of place-based strategies and in supporting 20-minute neighbourhoods is expected to be recognised and supported.
  • proposals that improve the vitality and viability of city, town and local centres should be supported.
  • support for development in town and city centres is strengthened, while out-of-town retail and leisure is restricted to help transition away from car-dependent developments towards those that enable walking, cycling, wheeling and public transport accessibility.
  • opportunities for city centre living are actively encouraged and good-quality homes supported, including on vacant and derelict land and gap sites, in empty property and vacant upper floors.

Following parliamentary scrutiny and consultation, the Scottish Government aims to bring a finalised NPF4 back to the Scottish Parliament for its approval in summer of 2022.

In addition, the Scottish Government will shortly seek views in a forthcoming public consultation on whether new permitted development rights and/or changes to the use classes order could support the resilience and recovery of Scotland's high streets and city centres.

Continuing the spirit of partnership in which the Task Force was established, we will carry out this work through workstreams led by cities, under the umbrella of the Scottish Cities Alliance. The Leadership Group of the Scottish Cities Alliance will receive regular updates on delivery progress, and we will jointly work together to ensure that areas of overlap, synergy and conflict are properly addressed. Scottish Government will continue to offer support from relevant policy officials, and work together with cities to investigate pilot schemes to aid implementation.

Below, we set out some of the priority areas to explore that emerged in our conversations with stakeholders, which we have jointly agreed could be further explored under each workstream. We do not expect this list to be exhaustive, or expect that the workstreams will cover every action; rather, we present these as a starting point, and we are currently working with the officers assigned to every workstream to assist them in prioritizing and refining their plans.

We will regularly review these structures in order to ensure they remain valid in terms of delivery. Although we do not anticipate that all of these areas can be considered in depth within a 12-month period, we expect the workstream partners to make their own informed decision about which to prioritise and appropriate timescales for milestones and delivery.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be dynamic and fast-moving, and we recognise that this work may need to be able to flex and refocus as circumstances change, in order to achieve the overall outcome we are pursuing. Should this be the case, all changes will be agreed as part of the regular reviews by the Leadership Group.

Priority Area 1: Increased residential capacity and occupancy

We want cities to be vibrant, living places and more people living in city centres is crucial to achieving this aim. While city centres are already home to many, the pandemic-induced shock to commuter habits and the visitor economy has raised important questions about who city centres are for, and how cities could support a growth in urban rather than suburban living.

All seven of our cities are keen to see an increased residential presence in our city centres. While city centres by their nature will always rely on drawing from a geographically wide catchment area for visitors, tourists and commuters, there is a general consensus – in Scotland and internationally – that cities benefit from a greater proportion of city centre residential use.

More residential usage in city centres could support other national and local policy goals, including ambitions to lower carbon emissions in the creation of 20-minute neighbourhoods. We mentioned above that we want our city centres to be attractive, welcoming places; this may also include landscaping to improve local area image and optimism around particularly challenging sites. And we believe that good design is key to the future of our city centres.

The first of our workstreams will therefore, taking into account NPF4, work towards the outcome of increasing residential capacity and occupancy in our city centres, including what services may be needed (such as schools and health care centres) to support this. Potential areas of investigation include the following.

1. High land values. We note that high land values in some areas in city centres can impede residential development, particularly around social and affordable housing. We can therefore seek to explore what policies could address this barrier, and where any action, if appropriate and practical, can be taken.

2. Supporting city centre development. We could identify better ways to prioritise city centre sites in Strategic Housing Investment Plans (SHIPs), and we will explore the feasibility of increasing the Affordable Housing Supply Programme (AHSP) budget to support city centre developments.

3. Taking on challenging sites. We could investigate mechanisms, such as the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF), to increase confidence for councils and social housing bodies to take on challenging sites.

4. Brownfield development. We could consider mechanisms by which we, as local and national government, could jointly increase brownfield development in city centres and also in adjacent neighbourhoods which would help build demand for city centre uses.

5. Flexible planning. We note a general desire for more flexibility in planning policies and legislation. We could investigate where such flexibility could be created, and whether there are appropriate ways we can jointly support greater flexibility in local government planning, particularly to support and/or incentivise mixed-use development.

6. Improving public spaces. While high land values pose a barrier to development in some parts of our city centres, there are different obstacles in other areas. We can investigate opportunities to facilitate grant funding to improve public spaces to increase residential demand.

7. Weighting scoring systems. We can consider potential for the broader use of weighting scoring systems in assessing density of housing. We note previous efforts towards this such as the London Plan's density matrix, linking public transport accessibility levels (PTAL) to permitted housing density, and will investigate what we can learn from that.

8. Working with existing and future capital funding programmes. We can seek to define clear ways to ensure that capital funding for city centres and other goals (such as housing, education, or health) can support neighbourhood regeneration and/or creation.

9. 20-year leases. In discussions with stakeholders we have noted some concern that the '20-year lease rule' (Section 8 of the Land Tenure Reform (Scotland) Act 1974, which makes provision so that residential leases cannot be more than 20 years long) may be impeding build-to-rent developments in Scotland. We can work to review the impact of this legislation, and to identify any changes that are necessary and appropriate.

Councillor Susan Aitken, Leader of Glasgow City Council

City centres are changing rapidly and fundamentally. With the right support targeted at the right challenges, Glasgow can be at the vanguard of this generational change, creating a more attractive, equitable and prosperous city centre. Completing across the next decade, the Avenues is the biggest overhaul of Glasgow's streetscape in over a century, delivering high-quality public realm and supporting new transport infrastructure. In the immediate term, the Spaces for People programme is expanding greener streets and active travel, complementing the impact of the Low Emission Zone on air quality. Compared with many of our peers, Glasgow's city centre population is low. We plan to double that in the next ten years and are creating the conditions required to attract more individuals and families, as well as the services communities need to thrive, back into the heart of Glasgow. We start from a good place. Investor interest is high and sites are becoming available. But equipping cities with more agile and streamlined compulsory purchase powers would expedite both recovery and transition.

Priority Area 2: Reducing the carbon footprint of city centres.

In the wake of COP26, we recognise that we need urgent work to meet our national and local ambitions around climate change. Our city centres, with their high public transport usage and density of housing and other buildings, provide us with opportunities to make a real difference.

Through the Scottish Cities Alliance partnership, we have already been working on the transition to Net Zero, and in this workstream we will build on our existing learning and successes.

We note that working towards Net Zero requires long-term planning and action, much of which is already ongoing.

But transition to Net Zero must also form part of our focus for the post-pandemic social and economic recovery of city centres. To create resilient, thriving city centres of the future, and to meet our goal of green city centres, we must embed work to reduce carbon footprints now. The first annual delivery plan for Scotland's National Transport Strategy, published in December of 2020, set out actions to improve transport for the future while supporting a green recovery from the pandemic. Scottish Government's blueprint for transport investment, the second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2), includes recommendations for creating better connectivity with sustainable, smart and cleaner transport options.

The second of our workstreams will therefore investigate ways to further reduce city centre carbon footprints, working with existing programmes and mechanisms, identifying new potential routes to achieve this goal, and learning from successes elsewhere. Potential areas of investigation include the following.

1. Procurement. We could investigate ways to embed a low-carbon city centre focus at a procurement level for public sector capital investment. We note existing work towards this already ongoing through the City and Regional Growth Deals programme, a joint programme carried out by local authorities, Scottish Government and UK Government, and we will look to learn from and build in successes from this.

2. Greater options. We could look to create a toolbox of options which local authorities can use to meet carbon reduction targets; for example, initiatives such as the existing SCA-funded Carbon Scenario Tool Pathfinder project.

3. District heating networks. We can explore ongoing issues related to the rating of district heating networks.

4. Building adaptations. As part of our ongoing local- and national-level work, we could investigate measures to further stimulate improvements in energy efficiency, and climate adaptability, of city centre buildings. This could include, for example, triple glazing; insulation; solar panels; and green roofs.

5. Viability gaps. We have noted some concern that financial viability gaps may be impacting on conversion of existing buildings to energy-efficient and/or climate-adapted residential usage. We will investigate ways to support closing these gaps.

6. Low-carbon freight. We could seek to clarify policy direction and support for low-carbon freight and deliveries, including identification of any potential investment support for pilot projects.

7. Car journey reduction. We could provide clearer joined-up work and messaging around reduction in car journeys, including consideration of support for local authorities reliant on parking revenues.

Councillor Adam McVey, Leader of The City of Edinburgh Council

Edinburgh's city centre is a fantastic place to live, work , visit and invest. We need to make sure we continue to offer one of the most enviable and enjoyable visitor experiences in the world. Our vision is to see Edinburgh as a world-leading smart city, using new technology as an enabler to ensure shared prosperity, and opening up access to new technologies which benefit all. We want our city centre to adapt, thrive and build on momentum. Part of this includes enhancing our historical city centre so it is safe and welcoming for pedestrians. We must also come together as cities to collaborate on actions at the scale and pace we need to get to Net Zero by 2030; our plans for low emission zones will be part of that, and will ensure the city centre meets the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors.

Priority Area 3: Reducing the amount of vacant and derelict land and property

The third of our workstreams will look at ways in which cities can reduce the amount of vacant and derelict land and property in their city centres.

We want city centres to be safe, vibrant, living places, and vacant and derelict sites can make areas look unappealing and attract anti-social behaviour.

As set out above, the Scottish Government will shortly consult on new permitted development rights and/or changes to the use classes order while, under the draft NPF4, our planning system will help city centres adapt and be vibrant, healthier, creative, enterprising, accessible and resilient places for people to live, learn, work, enjoy and visit.

This will be taken into account when considering the following potential areas of investigation:

1. Compulsory Purchase Orders. Compulsory Purchase Orders can be a useful tool for authorities and communities to use to tackle vacant and derelict land. However, we note some perception that the process could be easier to negotiate. In the Programme for Government, the Scottish Government has committed to reform and modernise the compulsory purchase system in Scotland, with the aim of making it clearer, fairer and faster for all parties.

2. Local authority capacity. Alongside the above, we could investigate ways to increase local authority capacity for carrying out processes such as Compulsory Purchase Orders. This might be through training, funding, knowledge-sharing, and/or measures to reduce the risk of taking on the new property.

3. Brownfield land. We could work to develop a clear policy ambition for the prioritisation of brownfield land over greenfield land for development.

4. Improvements to buildings. We could explore the possibility of enhanced legal powers to compel the owners of persistent vacant or derelict sites to respond to the problem. This could include, for example, powers to force owners to "dress" the sites in a particular way.

5. Working with the private sector. We note the importance of the private sector in our city centres; to support city centre recovery, we could identify better ways to actively engage with private sector stakeholders in developing a vision for Scotland's city centres. This will include exploring ways to increase investor confidence and reduce the friction and uncertainty of doing business.

6. Working with creative and startup ventures. We can consider models to support the use of vacant and unused space by creative and startup ventures. This could include brokering relationships between building/landowners and potential temporary users of those sites, and exploring mechanisms to give confidence to both parties (such as rolling short-term leases).

7. Local government acquisition of property. We could examine local government powers to acquire and pursue commercial property for fair work opportunities, or for other less commercial reasons.

Councillor Scott Farmer, Leader of Stirling Council

Stirling has a thriving and vibrant city centre set within a magnificent built landscape and cultural heritage.

Our ambition is to build on existing strengths; including a strong business base, highly skilled workforce and world-class connectivity, and support a move towards low carbon and all the opportunities that this brings around transport, energy and future sustainability for our residents.

Economic success for Stirling is a city recognised internationally as a well-connected location, which is outstanding in place development to support a dynamic, enterprising, diverse, resilient and inclusive economy which benefits our residents, businesses and visitors.

To support the growth of our city, we engage and work with a broad range of key partners to monitor circumstances and adapt our support, focus and interventions as the situation evolves and needs dictate. Also, by bringing together a broad range of skills and experience, and maximising capacity to deliver, Stirling will be in a strong position to respond to future challenges.

Priority Area 4: Increasing creative, entrepreneurial, and startup activity

We are agreed that we need our city centres to be creative, innovative, and thriving places, on a cultural and an entrepreneurial level. Enabling and supporting these ecosystems is an important part of recovery; our city centres cannot become the city centres we need for our future without a driving force of innovation and creativity. Some of this, we know, is already captured within the existing larger businesses and firms who are choosing our cities to locate within. More, potentially, could be supported and grown by assisting those presently operating at smaller scale.

The Scottish Government's ten-year National Strategy for Economic Transformation outlines plans to maximise the greatest economic opportunities of the next ten-years in a way that will transform the very fundamentals of how our economy works. It aims to establish Scotland as a world-class entrepreneurial nation, encouraging, promoting and celebrating entrepreneurial activity in every sector of our economy. It also aims to make Scotland's businesses, industries, regions, communities and public services more productive and innovative, including through improving connectivity infrastructure and digital adoption, and realising the potential of economic and community assets and strengths in all parts of Scotland.

This workstream, therefore, is looking to increase creative, entrepreneurial and startup activity within our city centres, supporting delivery of Scotland's National Strategy for Economic Transformation. Potential areas of investigation include the following.

1. Innovation zones. We note that innovation zones – typically focused around anchor institutions or sectoral clusters, and encouraging or incentivising partnership-building – are an important way to create "soft" ecosystems and support physical infrastructure that drives innovation. We can work to promote and develop existing innovation zones, and evaluate locations that would be suitable for the establishment of new ones.

2. Business Improvement Districts. We could encourage the development of city centre Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), and investigate the feasibility of offering higher levels of startup grants for new BIDs.

3. National priority themes. We could explore specific grant support and investment into startups covering national priority improvements, such as digital grants.

4. Creative hubs. We could investigate routes to encourage the development of "creative hubs" in city centres that connect creative practitioners, support cross-sector innovation, and foster the development of creative entrepreneurs and businesses.

5. Co-working spaces. We could look to support the creation of cheaper, more accessible co-working spaces and hybrid-working touch-down hubs in vacant units.

6. Digital collateral. We could consider local authority investment in new digital collateral to support inward investment.

7. External connections. We could work to foster and develop connections with universities and with the creative and tech sectors.

Councillor Murray Lyle, Leader of Perth and Kinross Council

The Council and business leaders have committed wholeheartedly to the pursuit of making Perth one of the most sustainable small cities in Europe. Growth will be founded on environmental responsibility and innovation and creating opportunities for all – creating a city where everyone can live life well. With ambitions to place itself firmly at the forefront of clean energy and the circular economy, Perth and the wider region has set its sights on addressing climate change and sustainable growth by harnessing its abundant natural resources, cultural heritage and local talent.

The city centre will be the shop window for a revitalised, confident and cosmopolitan city, the focal point of community life in Perth and Kinross, and a defining feature of the visitor experience. We want people to choose the city centre as a place to live, shop, work, learn and meet, and our businesses and cultural venues to offer their customers unique products and experiences.

Priority Area 5: Identifying more revenue-raising opportunities for local authorities

Our seven cities differ in their needs for recovery, but share an interest in identifying more ways by which local authorities can raise, leverage and control their revenue in order to meet those needs.

As such, this workstream will explore innovative approaches to empower local authorities to make revenue-raising decisions appropriate to their place and leverage in financing for themselves.

Councillor Jenny Laing, Leader of Aberdeen City Council

Our city centre masterplan aims to respond to both the effects of Covid-19, and for Aberdeen, the transition within the energy and renewables sector. As we recover, we will maximise opportunities from the refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery as UK Museum of the Year and our investments in attractions at Provost Skene's House and Union Terrace Gardens. These are exactly the type of projects cities need to build confidence of our people, businesses and investors. We are also supporting city centre living and a flagship proposal to improve access in the heart of the city – the Aberdeen Market will re-purpose vacant prime retail sites to showcase food, drink and creative industries. The Council is backing these exciting plans with a commitment to invest £150m to support development that I believe will transform our city in future and make sure Aberdeen retains its position as both a regional and international investment location.

Priority Area 6: Working towards an increase in the cultural offer and reduction in oversupply of retail.

The principal question for this workstream is how to attract people back into city centres. In doing so it needs to address the visible increase in vacant high street units due to the closure of shops and other businesses.

This issue needs to be considered in the context of longer-term retail trends accelerated by the pandemic, particularly a transition to online and out-of-town retail. While a move away from high street retail will undoubtedly impact city centres, "online retail" includes both retailers who trade entirely online and retailers who have increased their online offer while keeping a high-street presence. The significant uncertainty around these changes requires a nuanced and thoughtful policy response. Work to support the retail sector will continue through the Scottish Government's Retail Strategy while the draft National Planning Framework 4 strengthens support for development in city centres ahead of out-of-town retail and leisure to help us transition away from car-dependent developments towards those that support active and accessible travel.

City centres need a strong and vibrant offer to attract visitors, residents and tourists. They need to feel welcoming, safe and pleasant. As set out above, vacant units can undermine these aims. Creative re-use of these spaces, both temporary and long-term, presents an opportunity – particularly to enhance city centres' cultural offering and visitor economy. Thriving culture and creative sectors bring vibrancy and life to city centres, enriching the lives of residents and tourists alike. Although the culture and events sector will take time to rebuild and recover from the impact of the pandemic, city centres must capitalise on opportunities offered by the reopening and new investment in cultural attractions such as the Burrell Collection.

Potential areas of investigation for this workstream include the following.

1. Maker-spaces. We could seek to incentivise the creation of "maker-spaces" in former retail units. These are collaborative work-spaces incorporating varying technologies, allowing people to make creative use of machinery too expensive or unwieldy for home use and creating shared exploratory space for people to collaborate on projects of their choosing.

2. City centre services. We could seek to incentivise and encourage local authorities and public bodies to do more to locate services in city centres, such as libraries, health centres and cultural institutions.

3. Retail sector support. Working through the Scottish Government's Retail Strategy, we will continue to support the retail sector, identifying ways to mitigate the impacts of closures and redundancies.

4. Unused retail units. Even before the pandemic, our city centres were seeing retail unit vacancies which took considerable time to fill. We could look to develop a range of options to support the re-use of derelict retail units, targeting both short-term and long-term re-uses through investigating planning barriers and potential incentives.

5. Pop-up shops. We can review whether there are feasible ways to tackle legislative or planning barriers to greater use of pop-up shops and temporary uses of vacant sites. Potential mechanisms could include the removal of the "28-day rule" on pop-up shops and other temporary uses, peppercorn rents, and addressing the perceived fiscal barriers including around non-domestic rates.

6. Non-domestic rates relief. We could look in detail at the effects of non-domestic rates reliefs in city centres, to learn more about whether some may be skewing the market - looking at, for instance, charity units and private companies.

7. Large vacant units. We can consider potential funding options for redesigning large empty retail units into smaller lettable units, which may allow for greater use of the space.

8. Out-of-town retail. We can explore potential incentives that local authorities could use to encourage retailers to trade from a city centre retail unit rather than an out-of-town site.

Councillor John Alexander, Leader of Dundee City Council

The role and nature of our city centre has been changing for some time, but Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of that change.

Resilience, flexibility and ambition will be necessary as we recover from the pandemic, and we look forward to a new chapter in the city centre's development.

Inevitably, our city centre needs to be about more than its retail offering, however important that will continue to be. Centres need to be a celebration of people, public life, and vibrant and multi-functioning spaces. To thrive, they will need more people living, working and visiting, during the daytime and evening.

Therefore, we need more reasons to want to be in our city centre, which requires more homes, businesses, facilities, services, creativity, diversity, community and participation. Dundee has for many years had a reputation as an innovator and an ambitious rethink of Dundee's city centre is underway, as well as a strategic investment plan to underpin it.

Priority Area 7: Supporting agile and creative planning decisions.

The pandemic has led to greater use of outdoor spaces by private businesses, and more consideration by national and local governments of how this can be best facilitated. Some of the previous funding for the 2020/21 City Centre Recovery Fund, for example, was used to waive the application fees for hospitality venues applying for outdoor space, without otherwise reducing the oversight of the application process.

This workstream will consider, in the context of NPF4 and the Scottish Government consultation on permitted development rights, how to make planning decisions more agile and creative.

Potential areas of investigation include the following.

1. Positive learning. We will jointly work to learn from and build on any positive learning that has emerged from the pandemic, such as the permissive approach to temporary interventions and the use of outdoor spaces.

2. Limited-life and temporary buildings. We could review and consider the building regulations relating to limited life and temporary buildings to support outdoor use, in order to extend options and maximise outdoor capacity.

3. Planning freedoms. We could explore the potential role of new permitted development rights and/or changes to the use classes order in providing greater flexibility around changes of use, taking account of how such measures fit with our wider place-making goals.

4. Procurement. We could seek to support and advocate for simplified procurement procedures, higher contact thresholds, and more flexibility at local level over procurement strategy.

5. Local government planning policies. We could seek to investigate ways by which local government could itself introduce more flexible planning policies, without compromising quality place-making goals.

6. Non-statutory consultees. We could look to identify ways in which we could improve decision-making partnerships between local authorities and non-statutory consultees in the cultural and third sectors.

Councillor Margaret Davidson, Leader of Highland Council

The Highland Council is working with its partners to deliver a new vision that will transform Inverness into an even more vibrant and attractive place to live, visit, work and do business. This vision will be delivered through an ambitious strategy that comprises an up-to-date City Centre Recovery Masterplan, an ambitious new transport strategy, a new approach to branding the city, and a suite of strategic investments and pipeline projects to deliver low carbon transport and major new city attractions. This collaborative approach, centred on partnering with all stakeholders, will provide investors with the confidence that Inverness is the best place to be, and it will enable the city to remain the beating heart of the Highland region and solidify its role as the Highland Capital now, and throughout the coming decades.

Major investment is already delivering transformational change, including at Inverness Castle, which will deliver a high-quality, high-profile visitor attraction right in the heart of the City, complemented by significant regeneration in Academy Street, Union Street and at Inverness Town House and the Victorian Market. Work has also commenced to transform Inverness railway station, the former Royal Mail site and Farraline Park which will provide much-needed civic space, public transport integration and vastly improved routes for people to move around city centre in an enhanced public realm.



Back to top