Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ross Martin & Leigh Sparks: Time to offer hope to town centres

Published in the Scotsman, 6/4/2011. Click here to read it in its original form.

"Ignored, abandoned and unloved, there has to be a clear and coherent policy to protect the future of High Street shopping in Scotland.

SCOTLAND'S towns and town centres are a defining feature and a vital resource for the country. They provide considerable social and economic benefits, improve the quality of life and assist in meeting the Scottish Government's five strategic priorities for Scotland. Towns and town centres are the beating heart of Scotland and Scottish life. Well, that's the official rhetoric; straight from the Scottish Government.

And what of the opposition? Well, there is none; not on this issue. From genuine cross-party consensus the Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) was born. Across the country, communities have benefited from the TCRF, with towns pushing forward with long-awaited capital projects, high streets being given much needed restoration and make-overs and town centres being enabled to stabilise and, hopefully, then grow.

So what's the problem? Why are our towns and town centres still screaming and problems still mounting?

The reality on the ground is something far removed from the romantic and nostalgic view of town centres that many people and politicians still harbour. Most of Scotland's town centres are at best in a state of arrested decay and at worst suffering accelerating decline. The one-off sticking plaster of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund has done its best, but there is so much more that needs to be done to turn the rhetoric, and our ambitions, into a reality we can be rightly proud of.

Sure, there are some TCRF projects that promise to make a real difference, eg the excellent regeneration project in Falkirk, that is making the most of the town's cultural heritage and, literally, putting the soul back into the town centre with an inspired streetscape project based around the Steeple. This project points the way towards a better future. But it can only be seen as a step along that journey. So much more can, and needs to, be achieved. Too many of our town centres lack commitment, dedication and political priority. Shops can't vote. For far too long our town centres were reliant upon individual elected members, whether that was the sole local councillor, the MP or more recently the constituency MSP. If that person took an interest then maybe, just maybe, a town centre would be given political priority at budget time.

If not, then neglect was inevitably followed by decline, often hastened by other decisions to allow development (housing, retail, offices, leisure, government) away from the town centre.

This lack of voice has always been exacerbated by a lack of focus amongst those responsible for the various, complex, integrated functions a town centre needs to survive, let alone thrive. Caught between the regulatory role of planners, the engineering bias of the roads department and the economic portfolio split between local councils and Scottish Enterprise, our town centres have been strangled by costs, competition, regulation and inaction.

This patchwork of responsibilities and the bias towards the modern, more easily and more cheaply built and operated developments out of town has encouraged fragmentation, decentralisation, neglect and then decline. You can't blame authorities, businesses and then consumers for their actions, when we go out of our way to make town centres difficult and expensive places in which to develop and operate. We are, as someone has recently said, all in this together, without even a banker to blame.

We have to rethink and re-invigorate our town centres. We have to re-imagine and re-define their roles. We have to ask fundamental questions as to their function and place in modern society and then decide how we look at, and after, them. If we are to give them the confidence to change their futures and provide the economic, social and cultural focus that they demand and Scotland deserves, then we need to take a fresh look at our town centres.

We have to ensure that:

• All action promoting town centre activity is co-ordinated and concerted

• We measure where we are, assess what works and dump what does not

• Funding streams are repositioned and focused to drive activity within town centres

• Local solutions are encouraged, tried and supported

• Policies for town centres are aligned and implemented.

There are a number of concrete (forgive the pun) measures that can be taken. One of these costs money, many of them do not. First, we need to re-create the Town Centre Regeneration Fund, because once is simply not enough. The TCRF's £60 million spread across Scotland was a start, but if you consider that the proposed extension to the Buchanan Galleries is likely to cost £100m, the Parliament building cost over £400m and the new Forth Crossing will cost at least £1.5bn, then it's not hard to see the need for a much more significant investment in Scotland's town centres.

Secondly, existing revenue budgets need to be pooled and localised in our town centres. The cash which councils spend on street-cleaning, street-lighting and signposting should be centralised into one facilities management pot, along with that collected in waste management charges, litter fines and of course non-domestic rates.

The town centre budget could then be significantly enhanced with income generated through targeted taxation, for example the collection of car parking charges, the introduction of green taxes (e.g. to meet recycling targets) and the use of Business Improvement Districts, and their ability to agree upon a small additional levy in return for a specified, targeted package of enhancement measures and a say in the management and leadership of the town centre.

Out of centre activities, be they public or private office, leisure, retail or any other function which should be contributing towards the vibrancy and vitality of Scotland's town centres should pay their fair share. This is not about "punishing" activities for impacts they have, or the fact they are successful, but instead is about rebalancing the costs and opportunities for the good of Scotland as a whole. This is not a single-sector policy issue, but a locational issue across all sectors. Any activity that leaves an empty footprint on our high street should be considered a candidate to contribute to its regeneration, but equally we have to make it cheaper and more attractive to develop inside towns and town centres.

It is all too easy to blame one sector or policy for town centre decay. We have, by our own actions over half a century, neglected our town centres. Driven by many factors. The way we live has changed, and will change further. If town centres are our lifeblood, then we have to support them, guide them and encourage radical thinking and actions over a sustained period. We do not need, nor will we get back the town centre of the 1950s or 1960s, but what we need is energetic and effective town centres for Scotland in the early 21st century.

The alternative to action now is a continued spiral of decline and the loss of something that makes us Scottish, an integral component of this place called Scotland, what it is, and more importantly, what it can be.

Ross Martin is Policy Director at the CSPP, the Centre for Scottish Public Policy

Leigh Sparks is Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling."

• This comment represents personal views though informed through the Scottish Towns Policy Group established by CSPP.


  1. Ross and Leigh I did want to make two comments earlier (this is my second go at posting them here):

    1) I suggest that only City Region strategies will make feasible the delivery of what you propose as at;

    ‘All action promoting town centre activity is co-ordinated and concerted.’

    ... and on restraining, or levying taxes on, some (out-of-town) activity...;

    ‘This is not about "punishing" activities for impacts they have, or the fact they are successful, but instead is about rebalancing the costs and opportunities for the good of Scotland as a whole.’

    Anything other than a City Region strategy at sub national level will inevitably succumb in the labyrinth of; regulation; bureaucracy; silo-thinking behaviour; lack of leadership; fragmentation; town versus city; and local turf wars.

    2) We also need to face up to a harsh reality that is a corollary to what you say at:

    ‘First, we need to re-create the Town Centre Regeneration Fund, because once is simply not enough.’ (with an implied, 'much more significant investment')

    The enforced political ‘consensus’ that we must seemingly now endure, has it that public expenditure will become more and more constrained. The likelyhood of securing a TCRF sufficient to the scale of the need must be, at the very best, remote. In that eventuality we must be alert to the next Scottish Government being tempted into a populist duplicity of setting up another TCRF that is under-invested in, and that is therefore doomed to fail – and, equally damagingly, carry with it considerable opportunity-costs with loss of ‘what other good have instead been achieved’.

    If Scottish, and UK, policy makers, continue to sow cuts and inadequate public investment, thus we will all reap the harvest.

  2. Ross, Leigh (this is also a second try)

    An excellent article and a necessary corrective for the “romantic and nostalgic view” summed up in the claim that town centres are the “beating heart” of community life. But, to be honest, I still think you are understating the scale of the challenges facing town centres.

    You are right that there has been a lack of “commitment, dedication and political priority”. The planning system has tried to put town centres first, through sequential tests and the like. But, in practice, local authorities have been intimidated and out-manoeuvred by the big supermarkets and out-of-town developers. I absolutely agree that the problems have been compounded by the wretchedly poor standard of town centre management. But there is a much bigger issue. We really don’t know what the purpose of town centres is in 2011.

    In their 1950s heyday, towns were more compact and walkable, and most of the facilities and amenities that people needed were in the town centre and accessible on foot or by a short bus ride.
    All that has changed in the past couple of generations, thanks to three key factors: unprecedented personal mobility, linked to car ownership; a steady and continuous increase in disposable household income; and rising consumer expectations. These trends have resulted in a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and places. Instead of a local centre acting as the central place in the life of a community, the services people want and need – supermarkets, health centres, schools, gyms and multiplex cinemas - are now distributed over a large “travel to live” area, and a car is deemed essential for people to enjoy the benefits of a full life.

    Even in prosperous and successful places, town centres are “ignored, abandoned and unloved”. Increasingly, they serve a market of people who are too old, too young or too poor to go somewhere better. That is reflected in the dramatic decline of quality retail chains represented in town centres, the “flight to value retail” and the growing number of empty shops. At the same time, local financial and professional services have been in steep decline; post offices and pubs have been closing; and there has been a move to take clinics, schools and public services to purpose built-premises in residential neighbourhoods or on the edge of town. The market, as adaptable as ever, has devised new forms of housing, retail and leisure, resulting in the suburbanisation of the countryside around cities. And, of course, the internet is a hugely powerful agent for change. The exponential growth of e-shopping is a serious threat to the biggest names in retail, never mind smaller towns; services are delivered online rather than face-to-face, and the rise of social networks is creating communities defined by shared interests rather than physical proximity.

    The forces arrayed against traditional town and district centres are immensely powerful. For people who can remember them in better days, this is a source of regret, and the sense of loss and the damage to civic pride are palpable. But anyone under the age of 40 has grown up in the age of edge-of-town supermarkets, regional shopping centres and personal mobility. For these people – and certainly for their children – the town centre is an irrelevance and a relic of another age.

    I share the view that something must be done about our town centres. The trends of the past 50 years are not sustainable. Living our lives in a bigger space than ever before means that we are being profligate with scarce energy resources, and the new places privilege consumption over all other activities; the role of town centres in promoting sociability and community well-being has been fatally undermined. As the New Economics Foundation says, we need to “re-imagine the High Street” and make it a place where people choose to spend time because it offers something richer and more engaging than the prairie landscapes of the urban fringe.

  3. No more after this, I promise, but I thought this quote from the final page of Danny Dorling's excellent new book So You Think You Know About Britain? was very apposite:

    "...we have increasingly come to live more compartmentalized lives, commuting by differing means to different locations, shopping in differentiated places for different things, including ever more differentiated education for our children, and market-segmented retirement homes for ourselves. There are more gated communities in Britain since we were last as unequal, and more no-go areas kept for the rich now than were last found a century ago."

  4. Ok John if you’re having a second bite… I too was impressed with the quality of evidence and reasoning in Danny Dorlings book – for a more practical take and directly relevant to this thread, my other excellent read was Anna Minton’s ‘Ground Control – Fear and Happiness in the twenty-first century’ (and no, it’s not one of the current run a coffee table books on ‘happiness’). It’s about the takeover of huge tracts of our major cities by corporate conglomerates; in effect the privatisation and gating of much of our historical public domains.

    A bit polemic in part perhaps, but polemic based on good research and a lot of primary research of the ‘actually walking the streets’ sort. The credit crunch and banking crisis now throws up in sharp relief, a question that follows from Anna Minton’s book – into whose hands will the ownership of such privatised public domains pass should existing corporate owners run into financial difficulties?