Town Centre Action Plan unveiled

Town Centre ReviewLast week the Scottish Government published an action plan which aims to improve the fortunes of Scotland’s high streets.

The action plan is the Government’s response to recommendations made by an External Advisory Group which undertook a National Town Centre Review earlier this year.

The advisory group’s report focused on the need to create diverse town centres and highlighted the need to empower communities, giving them the tools and support to improve town centres in a way that meets local needs.

Rather than producing a prescriptive list of recommendations for the Government to take forward, the review took a more pragmatic approach. So rather than wholesale overhaul of the system, the review highlighted changes to the existing framework that could make a substantial impact on our town centres.

A central theme of the review was the so-called ‘town centre first principle’ which places the health of town centres at the heart of the local decision-making process.  Current planning policy already follows the town centre first principle in relation to retail, where suitable locations in town should be considered before allowing out-of-town development.  The review proposed extending this test to all types of development, from leisure and office, to public facilities and homes.  It will be interesting to see how this works in practice given that we’ve previously had the sequential test for retail development and that didn’t stop the growth of out-of-town retail.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s broad agreement with the town centre first principle and its commitment to work with COSLA and others to determine how it can best work in practice.   However, I’m concerned that the money attached to the Government’s press release will be a drop in the ocean compared with the investment required to turn round our town centres.

While I’m certainly not against pilot schemes I do wonder whether we shouldn’t just get on with the investment that’s needed.   The idea of residential units above shops for example is certainly not new and in my first job as a town planner in London the promotion of housing above shops was commonplace.   In the visits I made to Scottish town centres this summer it was absolutely clear to me that while Business Improvement Districts are helping to mobilise local authority and business action we need some serious investment to turn around some town centres.

I commented last week that the Police Scotland’s raft of police station counter closures and the reduction in access to police stations generally cuts right across the Town Centre First ambition suggested in the review.

Much like the review report itself, the action plan is succinct in describing the Government’s proposed action. A range of interesting ideas are identified including efforts to bring empty properties back into use as affordable housing, taking steps to ensure that historic properties are not unused because of the expense of meeting energy standards and giving local authorities power to use discretionary rates relief to encourage development of local business.

The scale of the challenge facing our high streets was recently set out in a report from the Centre for Retail Research which found that around one in six retail units are empty and that the number of shops in Scotland could fall by almost a quarter by 2018.  Against this sort of background, the challenge for the Scottish Government will be turning warm words into action to give community planning partnerships and the communities themselves the tools to drive regeneration in our town centres.   The prolonged squeeze on local government finance and the difficulty of using compulsory purchase powers to pull together the physical transformation needed in run down areas will limit the potential of projects on the ground.

I recently met with the Built Environment Forum for Scotland and was interested in their work bringing together planning practitioners businesses and community groups to identify what needs to be done to breathe life back into our town centres.  You can read about their work here.