Town Centre Regeneration: How Does it Work & What can be Achieved?

The report presents findings of research undertaken to assess the scope and nature of the outputs and longer-term outcomes that arise from town centre regeneration and to identify the relevant contextual factors, mechanisms and processes that contribute to achieving these outputs and outcomes. The report is one of four publications produced by this research.


2.1 The Research Team of Douglas Wheeler Associates Ltd with Slims Consulting, Ryden and Avril Blamey & Associates were commissioned by the Regeneration Division within the Housing and Regeneration Directorate of the Scottish Government to understand how town centre regeneration works and what it can achieve. The purpose of the research was to develop a clearer understanding of the activities taking place as part of town centre regeneration and to scope out the nature of the outputs and longer term outcomes that follow on.

Policy Context: Government Economic Strategy and Town Centre Regeneration Fund

2.2 The Scottish Government has a single Purpose - to create a more successful country where all of Scotland can flourish through increasing sustainable economic growth. The Government Economic Strategy sets out the approach to delivering the Purpose to ensure that all of the Government's resources and policies are focused on its achievement. The National Performance Framework, Scotland Performs[1], provides more details of how progress will be measured.

2.3 Scotland's town centres and local high streets are a significant contributor to the national economy and in supporting the achievement of this Purpose. They are a focus of services, employment, leisure and civic activity for their local populations, often acting as the heart of local communities.

2.4 The Town Centre Regeneration Fund ( TCRF) was a £60million capital fund available to town centres and local high streets from April 2009 to March 2010. The fund demonstrates Scottish Government commitment to the regeneration and growth of Scotland's town centres and local high streets, supporting local economies through challenging economic times and helping towns reach their potential. The aim of the fund was to support community and business leaders to regenerate and grow town centres in order to meet the needs of local communities and businesses.

2.5 The fund was available to all areas that were recognised in local authority development plans as performing the function of a town centre. This included town centres and high streets within cities, although city centres were excluded. Scottish Planning Policy defines town centres as: 'city, town and district centres, irrespective of size, that provide a diverse and sustainable mix of activities and land uses which create an identity that signals their function and wider role.' Projects funded by the TCRF in nine case study areas were used by the research team to draw general inferences about town centre regeneration and also about the projects themselves.

Town Centre and Local High Street Learning Network

2.6 The Town Centres and Local High Streets Learning Network is a cross-Government initiative that supports people and organisations to improve the way Scottish town centres and high streets are made more vital and vibrant. The network gives practical help to organisations and individuals involved in decision-making and provision of frontline services. It aims to better connect a range of people across Scotland, including: local-authority regeneration teams; planning and economic development managers; developers; retailers; town-centre managers; Business Improvement District staff; and community representatives.

2.7 The Network has identified whole town centre/whole town approaches and performance management as its two main priorities. The members, who come from a variety of sectors and disciplines, are interested in learning more about what works and what does not in terms of interventions in town centres and in different contexts and circumstances. They are also interested in identifying and understanding what other process factors help or hinder successful town centre regeneration.

Research Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives of the research were to:

  • Develop a clearer understanding of the activities taking place as part of town centre regeneration and the outputs and outcomes that follow on from this;
  • Assess the scope and nature of the outputs and longer term outcomes that arise from town centre regeneration;
  • Identify the relevant contextual factors, mechanisms and processes that contribute to achieving these outputs and outcomes;
  • Understand how town centre regeneration works and what it can achieve;
  • Develop and populate a 'theory of change' (ToC) for town centre regeneration, drawing on existing data and evidence, clearly identifying gaps in the evidence that should be explored in this research.

Four Stage Methodology

2.8 The Research Team, working closely with a Research Advisory Group, developed a four stage methodology that is illustrated in the Appendices report (available as a separate document) and was undertaken over an 18 month period starting in October 2009. This report has been prepared in Stage Four and is a synthesis of the conclusions from the first three stages of the research.

2.9 This report summarises published research and the results of consultations into what town centre regeneration is and how it works. The report then goes on to identify the key elements that are needed for town centre regeneration and outlines what it can achieve. The issues and fundamental challenges in planning interventions, monitoring and evaluating town centre regeneration are identified using nine TCRF Case Studies. The town centre case study areas were selected to cover varying types, scales and different settings, ranging from: town centres within cities; town centres on the edge of cities; town centres in rural areas; town centres on islands; and larger free standing towns. The report then considers how this research has helped to improve the clarity and specificity of project plans and monitoring and evaluation. Finally, the report considers how learning on town centre regeneration can be maximised.

2.10 The report draws on evidence from a series of exercises that were carried out by the Research Team, including:

  • A review of literature to identify and examine published research into how town centre regeneration works and what it can achieve. Regeneration is an extremely wide and multi-faceted topic and only literature which may shed light on these questions was assessed. Around 40 published documents were identified based on a comprehensive search. The review is included in the Appendices report which is available as a separate document;
  • A series of face to face consultations with a range of stakeholders, advisors and promoters of Scottish town centre regeneration who were identified in conjunction with the Research Advisory Group. Two workshops were also held with one in Stage Two and one in Stage Four. The consultations and workshops were designed to augment the literature review and provide a current view on town centre regeneration in Scotland;
  • An online survey of local authorities, which explored the availability of town centre regeneration performance data at town, town centre and district centre levels. The survey identified what data are collected, how often they are collected, for what areas and by whom to get a clear picture of activity across Scotland. A summary of the findings from this exercise and the survey itself are included in the Appendices report;
  • A review of successful TCRF applications to develop a typology was undertaken to establish: the types of activities funded through TCRF; the nature of outputs and impacts anticipated from the supported projects; and the approaches expected to be taken to monitor and evaluate the projects. The typology is included in the Appendices report;
  • The baseline as reviewed via fieldwork during April/early May 2010 and progress at January/February 2011 in the nine TCRF case study areas that have been selected. The TCRF Case Studies Report is available as a separate document.

2.11 These research exercises have identified a number of challenges particularly for monitoring and evaluating town centre regeneration which have implications for improving the effectiveness of town centre regeneration. This final report goes on to demonstrate how a Theories of Change ( TOC) [2] approach can help meet some of these challenges by describing and testing the anticipated process of change in town centre regeneration. This approach constructs a 'results chain' to aid the development of an effective evaluation framework. TOC can respond to some of the information and process gaps that have been identified in the research and provide theory and structure to explore and understand the process of change in town centre regeneration.

Context for the Research: Market Overview

2.12 This research was undertaken between October 2009 and April 2011 against a backdrop of the financial crisis and moves to economic recovery. The 2008 financial crisis affected the property markets in waves. Initially, commercial property investment values plummeted and housing market activity fell away, as purchasers of both were unable to access funding from banks.

2.13 Occupier demand for property did not collapse during the recession and markets have remained subdued but active. Some sectors such as affordable housing, hotels and student housing have taken advantage of the weak commercial and residential sectors to actually expand during the recession.

2.14 The TCRF was launched in 2009 during the recession and thus provided investment in town centres which would not otherwise have happened, during a period when the typical TCRF town was at a low point in terms of market activity and interest.

2.15 Scotland exited recession in 2010. The property market recovery is, however, extremely risk-averse and is focused upon large and deep markets with growth potential - essentially the main cities. Occupier demand is also increasingly hierarchical. Public sector funding seeks "leverage" in larger centres where there is active - but not quite viable - private sector interest.

2.16 These conditions mean that, in general, market prospects for small to medium towns remain comparatively weak. Accordingly, active management and targeted investment rather than major physical regeneration are likely to be the most productive focus of resources. Apart from large supermarket interest, new activity and growth are more likely to emerge from local, independent and civic/community sources than "inward investment" by major companies.

2.17 Good practice and important lessons are presented in text boxes. The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 3: What Is Town Centre Regeneration?;
  • Chapter 4: The Key Elements Needed For Successful Town Centre Regeneration;
  • Chapter 5: Challenges In Assessing The Success of TCRF;
  • Chapter 6: Using a Theories of Change Approach;
  • Chapter 7: Key Findings & Recommendations.

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