Hot off the press, insights from the Towns Centre Action Plan Review Group Report launched today
The 2013 Town Centre Action Plan was Scottish Government’s response to the National Review of Town Centres. The Town Centre Action Plan emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted Town Centre First which was quickly agreed between COSLA and the Government.
The subsequent seven years have seen changes in the national ambitions and context. The development of the National Outcomes and their linkage to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have positioned Scotland as focusing on wellbeing, inclusive development, climate emergency responses and health and inequalities. Place and town centres have been identified as components of solutions to some of these issues and Town Centre First, the Place Principle and other place and planning changes have promoted this approach. Scotland has been seen as leading the way, including through the work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and its partners and members.
There has however remained a sense that more can be done to enhance town centres given their scope to meet our societal objectives. Inequalities amongst communities and places remain stubbornly persistent. Then came Covid-19, which altered the world as we knew it and amplified existing, and produced further, inequalities.
In July 2020 the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, MSP set up a Review Group, chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks at the University of Stirling to review the Town Centre Action Plan and to consider how we can make our towns and town centres greener, healthier and more equitable and inclusive places. Over six months the Review Group (which included COSLA membership) has taken oral and written evidence and considered a range of research and inputs.
Vision and background
The Review Group adopted a vision for towns and town centres: “Towns and town centres are for the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centre successful”. Town centres are the heart of communities, can provide shared and equitable access to products and services, have an ability to focus sustainable and local economic and social activity and can deliver enhanced wellbeing through a positive sense of place, history, community and environment.
The best of our town centres and our most successful towns offer a sustainable, local economy and society with diverse and mixed uses attracting and meeting the needs and desires of their local communities. They are centres that enhance a sense of community, place, identity and engagement and that advance equality by enabling all members of society to participate fully.
Currently, however, some towns and town centres are not meeting these ideals and ambitions. Those towns can be perceived as disappointing by residents and visitors with a lack of sense of place or difference and little by the way of local presence or engagement. Some town centres may be perceived as excluding particular communities or groups – for example, if there are concerns about safety at particular times, where using the town centre is considered expensive compared to other options or where it is not as accessible as it should be.
In arriving at our recommendations the Review Group has attempted to build on the good progress made and the clear path set out in 2013. We have tried to reflect the changed context and the new national ambitions especially in the areas of environment and climate. We welcome and recognise significant progress across all levels of government in developing and aligning policies that assist communities and town centres and focus on inclusivity and equalities. We have attempted to align with these.
We have made three types of recommendations.
First, we have a set of proposals about strengthening the role of town centres in planning and the role of communities in shaping their town and town centre. The aim is to strengthen the position of town centres overall and ensure a local embeddedness and focus on working with all of the local community. A refocus and reemphasis on Town Centre First would be beneficial.
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.
Secondly, we have identified and seek to tackle what is an unfair playing field, stacked against town centres. Taxation needs to reflect activities or it becomes unsustainable. We make recommendations for consideration mainly in the area of rates (NDR) and taxation (VAT) to make it more attractive to operate in town centres and less attractive to operate out-of-town (out of town car parking space levy). This will help address equitable access to various public and commercial services. We suggest rebalancing taxation to better encompass and reflect the rapid rise of online activities (digital tax). We seek to tackle the environmentally unfriendly nature of much of our current activity and the need to make substantial changes in operations and behaviour to meet our climate targets (moratorium on out of town development).
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.
Thirdly we build on the strong basis of the original Town Centre Action Plan and its emphasis on projects and partnerships. We reflect that we need to accelerate these, sometimes by incentivisation, to better exchange the knowledge and learning from them. We have an overall request that 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. We focus on pre-existing themes from the Town Centre Action Plan in terms of town centre living, digital development and enterprising communities (and inducing vibrant local economies). We add to this with a set of proposals based around climate change response. In all these areas we recognise the progress made, the partnerships currently developed, the steps being taken by Scottish and Local Government, as well as future ambitions. These recommendations link directly to the Place Based Investment Programme, Community Wealth Building, 20-minute Neighbourhoods, Active Travel and other Climate Emergency responses. We recognise the opportunity to develop and focus such projects, partnerships and investments with the local community to improve equality and access for all groups across society.
Recommendation 3: Expanded and Aligned Funding of Demonstration Projects in Towns and Town Centres.
The role of local government
It should be obvious that local government is central to these recommendations and this agenda. Indeed, local government and local authorities have considerable power and scope to shape their town centres and there are great examples of this already. These recommendations strengthen their hand, but also perhaps ask more from local authorities. Local authorities need to use their assets to drive forward inclusive, community-focused and local entrepreneurship. Their powers can be used strategically in terms of statutory powers, asset purchasing, protection and transfer and harnessing their scale as major local enablers, purchasers and “glue”.
But they can’t do this alone. Communities need to be better engaged, with all voices welcomed and encouraged. Collaborations will be needed to focus on outcomes for town centres and individual sites. Above all those leading and working in local authorities need to reignite their passion for their places and harness the potential in every town and town centre to meet the ambitions and desires of their local communities. People identify with places and communities and want to see them succeed; local government is critical to helping this happen. A community-centric partnership approach including all voices from the community and enabling the community to shape and co-create the vision and changes is required.
Towns and town centres can deliver many of the ambitions for Scotland and its people. They can only do this however if they focus around the specific needs of their local communities and ensure all community voices are engaged in developments. Town centres can be places we can be proud of and which provide social, economic, cultural, creative, environmental, entrepreneurial and local opportunities for all citizens. This can be done, but we need to prioritise, support and actively rethink what we want in our town centres and show how this removes inequalities of place and identity and enhances the wellbeing of all those that live in and use them. We believe our recommendations, if adopted, will help on this journey and will result in greener, healthier and fairer town centres.
A more detailed version of this post is available at www.stirlingretail.com. The full report is available to download on the Scottish Government website at https://www.gov.scot/ISBN/978-1-80004-636-8. Further information about the Review can be found at www.futuretowns.scot where evidence submitted and other material is also available. Leigh Sparks is active on Twitter at @Sparks_stirling and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Leigh Sparks, Professor and Deputy Principal, University of Stirling
Chair, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group