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.