Ahead of our upcoming article on Paisley 2030 and town centre regeneration in Scotland, we hear from Fergus Murray, Head of Development and Economic Growth at Argyll & Bute Council on how local government can, and should, embrace town centre living.
Successful town centres have always been able to adapt to changing economic and social circumstances. That said, the relentless pace of change in recent years is presenting a lot of new challenges to take into account and there is now an urgent need for some new thinking and ideas. The continued loss of large amounts of retail floor space is of particular concern as is the loss of other commercial spaces such as offices. There is now a compelling need to find new uses to replace this lost activity that essentially formed the centrepiece of our town centres for decades. Town centre living, therefore, has to be part of the solution and this needs to happen as soon as possible.
Town centres already have people living in them of course but in far fewer numbers than once was the case as the suburbs drew them away. Town centres can attract people back but to make this a reality some town centres need greater public intervention than others. Decline and neglect have taken place for too long in many places and significant investment will be fundamental to make them attractive again as a place to live and thrive. In addition to investing in the built fabric of a town centre, there may also be a need to invest in the services people need for modern day living. People expect easy access to good digital connectivity, education and healthcare facilities, leisure, culture and other public services. Without all of these in place, some town centres may have limited appeal as a place to live.
Other town centres may require less intervention. A more flexible planning policy environment perhaps, or fiscal incentives to attract private investment. For example, retail will always be part of the mix of a successful town centre but it will need to better serve the people who live there which could mean a broader mix of commercial services being encouraged or incentivised. The 20-minute neighbourhood principle could be an important factor for councils to base future decisions on and where resources need to be applied.
Interested in finding out more about 20-minute neighbourhoods? LGIU’s collection of resources have you covered:
Town centres also have to remain accessible to a wide range of users but not at the expense of the quality of the place. Pollution levels in town centres are a major area of concern for people who are considering living there as is the availability of attractive and usable, green and public spaces. Some things may have to change.
- Could road space be minimised?
- Could that carpark that remains empty for most of the day become a public square or garden?
- Is that multi-storey a potential housing development site?
These types of questions, and many others, need to be considered if we are to create a successful place that makes people actually want to be there.
Town Centre living is not for everyone of course. Noisy and smelly neighbours and other factors could be perceived as barriers. That said, there is a need to make them as inclusive as possible offering various opportunities for a wide range of people to actually make the choice to live there. It cannot be about one social class or age group. Having people from a wide range of different circumstances and personal backgrounds adds to the energy of a place. Accordingly, successful town centre living needs a corresponding range of affordability, varied sizes of units and where possible specialised types of housing delivered such as homes for the elderly, homes for younger people and larger families.
Delivering housing in town centres can also be challenging for other reasons. It is usually more expensive to deliver new developments in towns with the assembling of sites particularly challenging with absent owners and others that are reluctant or appear unable, to sell. Whilst councils do have CPO powers to help address blockages this is an expensive and risky process to carry which requires some further financial help to help accelerate progress. Given we are still in a transformational phase with town centres there is still a lot of hope value out there in terms of existing assets and it may take time for this to completely disappear.
Many buildings in our town centres also have historic value. They provide distinct identities for places and where practicable they should be retained. Some however are beyond economic repair, or don’t lend themselves to another function, so greater flexibility needs to be applied here. Retrofitting these buildings with energy efficiency measures has to be a key consideration given the drive to net zero and the cost of living crisis.
Maintenance of town centres is also important. When a place is dirty, in poor repair or blighted with derelict sites or buildings it is difficult to attract new investment or residents. Places need to be looked after and this may require greater collaboration with everyone with an interest in the future of our town centres, including existing residents and the local business community.
Town centres have always played an important role in our society. They used to be the place to live in and now there is an urgent need to fully embrace this again given the economic and social realities of today, not least the critical housing shortages we have the length and breadth of the country.
Local authorities need to be at the heart of this transformation of our town centres to make them living places once again. There is a need to better recognise the pace of change impacting the role and function of town centres and the urgent need for action. Having a clear and compelling vision of how each individual town centre has to change in order to create an inclusive place where all types of people want to live. This vision requires collaboration to achieve action on the ground not least from the local community that already lives there and ultimately, committing sufficient public resources to address the many barriers to town centre living and embrace new opportunities that are available now and into the future.