Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, tells us about the Town Centre Action Plan Report and its recommendations for reinventing town centres.
The Town Centre Action Plan Report (A New Future for Scotland’s Towns) has three types of recommendations. Two of these are reasonably uncontroversial – planning, engaging more local people property and data on towns on the one hand and funding investment in towns and aligning programmes to enhance local impact and capacity on the other.
The third set of recommendations is perhaps another kettle of fish though. It recommends we stop doing harm to our town centres. Now I don’t think that should be controversial. But it is because it challenges existing operations and funding, often allied to powerful vested interests. And longer-term it challenges the ways some (many?) of us live and behave; mainly those who can afford choices.
Our recommendations stem from at least four inter-linked positions:
- Asking councils to forego income (e.g. rates relief, free town centre parking) is neither a sensible nor sustainable way forward – it is asking for short term sticking plasters from austerity-hit and income-poor authorities;
- The climate emergency demands we address our non-sustainable activities (see the updated Climate Change Plan);
- The social damage from Covid-19 has pointed to the massive inequalities across society and these have to be addressed now (see the Social Renewal Advisory Board report amongst others for evidence);
- We can’t go on allowing activities and companies to flourish beyond the tax regime if we want to have the social goods to meet all our societal needs. Taxation has to reflect activity.
Being positive about town centres and suggesting we stop rewarding those that damage them seems an obvious step. We need to get beyond the whether and focus on the how. This is not an either/or, it is about basic fairness for people, but we also need basic fairness for businesses (large and small, corporate, cooperative, independent) and organisations (third sector, community, development trusts etc) as well.
I wrote a longer piece on these issues a week or so ago, some of which was used in a recent Herald article. I post what was written here in case anyone is interested:
“The time has come to put our town centres first. And fast. We simply cannot continue with the cards stacked against them as they are. It’s abundantly clear that the world in which we find ourselves compels meaningful – sometimes difficult – action to deliver radical change.
When it comes to Scotland’s towns and town centres, that means righting some wrongs and creating a fairer playing field on which town centres have the best opportunities to not just survive, but to thrive; an environment where it is cheaper and more attractive to invest in them, for the good of people, planet and the economy.
We need to create communities that are cleaner, greener and more equitable. To achieve that, governments (local and national) need to tackle the systematic inequalities which are holding back our town centres and focus on making them deliver.
The Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, which I chaired, this week published its recommendations on how Scotland’s town centres can become stronger and more sustainable, helping to meet our climate change targets. A major focus of the recommendations is to stop supporting activities which damage town centres. We suggest a number of approaches.
One urges a five-year moratorium on out-of-town developments. Contentious? Perhaps. But 60 years of disaggregation in development needs to be reversed.
This decentralisation – driven by car use – has resulted in a hollowing out of activities from town centres. It’s led to the construction of off-centre mono-format developments, and this goes well beyond retailing, which has left local services being insufficient to meet local needs – or inaccessible without a car.
It has resulted in less active travel and created issues around the sustainability of public transport. It does nothing to tackle climate change and impacts negatively on our society too.
Some might view this too blunt an approach. Yet I believe it’s necessary as a starting point. Out-of-town needs to be the exception rather than the rule.
Developments of all kinds must be focused on town centres. That means the incentives to invest must be better, with our taxes reflecting our ambitions and activities. Town centres need to be cheaper places to turn to – and they should be easier to develop and operate in, including by community and third sector organisations, and for a diversity of activities and functions.
It’s not right that there are incentives for developing out of town which do not exist in town centres. I am clear in my view that Non-Domestic Rates need to be overhauled and substantially replaced. Rates need to be reduced for town centres and increased elsewhere. This would help bring more businesses and people into our towns, reducing inequality of access. It needs to be cheaper to rebuild and renovate our heritage in town centres than eat up greenfield and other land.
Taxes generally need reform. We make clear that taxation needs to reflect the society we are now and not what we were. Various models of digital tax must be explored as a matter of urgency, ideally linked to reducing carbon emissions. We all use social goods such as the NHS; we all need to pay towards it. Because some companies are not doing anything wrong by not contributing currently, that does not make it right.
We, of course, need to make it easier to get into towns, which is why I hope that an out-of-town car parking space levy would begin to help address that. This would be an income stream for enhancing public transport and other forms of active travel so that they can be developed to improve town centre access.
Make no mistake, the task of reinventing and rebuilding town centres is not easy – and may not be as quick as we would like – but we must ignite that debate, begin the process of change and then accelerate it. To achieve that we first need to acknowledge what’s broken and take steps to put it right, however challenging that may be. The focus which we advocate, and its emphasis on local, community, fairness, wellbeing, inclusion and equality, is in the national interest.”