Councils make their mark and people have their say as waterfront towns find their purpose. By Bob Serafini

The point has often been made, most famously in The Economist magazine, that the British love their town centres – but like to look at them as they drive past on their way to Tesco.

That sums up the dilemma facing many of Scotland’s towns as they look to: revive their fortunes in a post-recession retail climate; offer something different from supermarkets and online shopping; and establish themselves as a destination, delivering positive reasons to attract visitors and residents into their economy.

The traditional high street was dealt a body blow during the economic crash. Household name retailers deserted in droves, halving the Scottish locations they considered prime from 40 to 20 and leaving a trail of vacant space to fill.

Town centre regeneration expert Dr Mark Robertson of Ryden said more than half the demand for traditional tenemented high street shops was not now retail but rather leisure uses, local estate agents, cafés, restaurants, artisans, crafts, community use and start-up businesses: "This is something that has almost snuck up on the planning system while a lot of people thought things would go back to the way they were," he said.

Commissioned by local authorities and enterprise bodies, he has led more than 20 studies across the country on what can be done to help town centres. This has included the increasingly popular charrettes – intensive planning sessions – with the local community, who often cut through the politics and know where they shop, where they drive to and the real situation on the ground.

Billfinger GVA’s latest study in this field suggests a reduction in empty floorspace and found evidence of increased vitality and viability in our high streets, with prime pitches now taking on a role beyond their function as shopping only streets.

But Richard Slipper, senior director, is critical of the lack of flexibility among planning authorities. He said: "Scottish development plans continue to lead with a policy of ‘control’ rather than a programme of facilitation. Many policies discourage non-retail uses within centres unfairly, despite research finding it is these uses which are lifting levels of activity in high streets, reducing vacancy levels and improving the vitality of smaller centres.

"There has been significant growth in service floorspace, which includes coffee shops, bars etc, and there is a clear trend towards this becoming increasingly important within town centres since the recession."

Appointment of a new planning minister this month could well be the driver for more flexibility in the way we approach development in our towns and city centres.

With backing for the "town centres first" principle from both the Scottish Government and local authority body COSLA, this is a part of our lives receiving increasing attention.

Respected regeneration body SURF now gives hotly contested awards for most improved small/medium and large towns (won last year by Barrhead and Kilmarnock respectively), while the Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) is the go-to body in this field, a promotion hub with a hive of activity to help share good practice and find practical support.

STP produces a detailed 100 page toolkit recognising people are the lifeblood of these communities, providing advice on all the issues around making a community attractive, active and accessible, and addressing everything from dealing with the Scottish weather to car parking, from encouraging more folk to live in town centres to the importance of providing what people want in this digital age.

Securing investment for improvements is difficult as public sector budgets are tighter than ever, but the organisation outlines many ideas and examples of how people and organisations can make their town centre more attractive.

Already some authorities have demonstrated their commitment. West Dunbartonshire has pledged to move 500 staff, and their associated spending power, from the outskirts of the town into the centre of Dumbarton.

Source: Herald Scotland

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