The group established to look at how Scotland’s towns and town centres can be made stronger has today (3rd February) released its recommendations.

The independent review has urged the Scottish Government to take further steps to support greener, healthier, fairer communities.

The Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review Group has set out its findings in the report  A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres. The full document can be read here.

Chaired by respected retail academic Professor Leigh Sparks, the panel was commissioned by Scotland's Communities Secretary, Aileen Campbell MSP, to consider how the nation’s towns can be made greener, healthier, more equitable and inclusive places.

The report highlights the importance of Scotland's towns and strengthening them while acknowledging progress made by the Scottish Government to support communities and town centres.

Professor Leigh Sparks, Deputy Principal and Professor of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling, said:

“The current narrative is too often about the decline or death of the town centre. This is not the case in many of our towns but we can do more and better for all towns. Decline is not inevitable.”

Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell MSP, said:

“I extend my wholehearted thanks to Professor Leigh Sparks and all the members of the Review Group for the knowledge, expertise and hard work they have brought to this important programme of work. They have done this in the midst of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, taking into account the profound economic impact we know the pandemic is having and will continue to have on people, businesses, communities, and town centres.

“Flourishing and vibrant towns centres are essential for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of our communities. This year’s Budget includes £81.6 million for projects to support community regeneration, place, town centres and 20 minute neighbourhoods – where people can meet their needs within a 20 minute walk from their home. Local people know their towns best and we need to trust and empower our communities and local business to thrive in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have rediscovered our towns in a new way recently and we want to harness this.

“This independent review will play a crucial role in the regeneration of our towns and town centres. The report develops a new vision for the future of our town centres, capturing some of the new found sense of localism, and provides recommendations to help achieve the healthier, fairer, greener, successful towns our communities deserve.”

The expert group gathered evidence over six months, examining what the role of town centres can and should be across Scotland.

While it found that the basis and route map of the Scottish Government’s 2013 Town Centre Action Plan remains sound, they concluded that progress “needs to be more consistent and rapid”.

To support that, the group has made three key recommendations, each supported by a series of suggestions for action.

Recommendation 1: Strengthen the formal positioning of towns and town centres in National Planning, including requirements to produce town and town centre plans, co-produced with communities and enhance data collection and use at town and town centre level. To support that:

  • Towns and town centres to be included and prioritised in National Planning Framework
  • Town Centre Plans need to be developed and implemented with the local community and with a focus and commitment on the wellbeing of people, the planet and the economy
  • Develop a revised and enhanced focus on measurement and data for towns and town centres

Recommendation 2: Scottish Government should review the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that wellbeing, economy and climate outcomes, fairness and equality are at their heart. Potential suggestions for actions include:

  • Amendments to Non Domestic Rates (NDR)
  • Amendments to VAT
  • Introduce a digital tax
  • Introduce an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy
  • Introduce a Moratorium on Out-Of-Town Development

Recommendation 3: Funding of Demonstration Projects in Towns and Town Centres. Projects could be focussed around themes of:

  • Town Centre Living Expansion – housing sector incentivisation in town centres
  • Digital Skills and Use in Towns – skills development for businesses and enterprises and extended uses of various technologies to understand and change behaviours in town centres
  • Enterprising Communities – Strategic Acquisition Fund to support ownership, development and use patterns in town centres to encourage local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economies
  • Climate Change Response – building on existing programmes in Climate Action Towns, micro-generation, retro-fitting of town centres buildings and the alteration of space in town centres for active travel, pedestrian movement, green space and social settings, with a view to enhancing the resilience of town centres against climate change.

The group believes the renewed interest in independent and local businesses, often in local towns and neighbourhoods, and encouraged in part by home working and reduced commuting - could prove to be a significant legacy of Covid-19.

Councillor Stephen Heddle, COSLA’s Economy and Environment spokesperson, said:

“Towns and town centres are a vital part of the fabric of our society; if we are to flourish then our towns must flourish too. That is why I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this independent review, and to Professor Leigh Sparks for his tireless efforts, leadership and experience.

“Towns are at the heart of local authorities the length and breadth of Scotland and it is to the benefit of the communities and businesses who call them home that they achieve their full potential. There has never been a more important time to focus on our towns when the Covid-19 pandemic has taken such a toll. The recommendations outlined in this report give hope and a clear direction to help our towns achieve their ambitions.”

Professor Sparks added:

“We have to allow towns to achieve their full potential to deliver a modern, sustainable, fairer, healthier and greener Scotland. This requires hard choices and a high level of commitment from communities, local and national governments and from our business, third sector and community organisations.

“Above all, it requires people to collaborate and work together for their town and town centre. Towns can and should be the heart of the community, delivering for people, planet and the economy.  We need to make this happen.”

Commenting on the publication of the report, Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership said:

“The publication of this report marks a significant milestone in the mission to make Scotland’s towns and town centres stronger, greener, healthier and fairer places. I hope its recommendations prove thought-provoking and a significant catalyst for change.

“These should be critical considerations for decision-makers at all levels in shaping a post-pandemic Scotland that’s more sustainable and inclusive.

“We are beginning to see the unfortunate economic casualties of Covid-19. The crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the need for us to reimagine how we best use our town centres to sustain jobs, build community wealth, embrace digital opportunities, tackle climate change and so much more. This work must happen at pace.

“The pandemic has led to everyone living more of their lives locally. By embracing the spirit of localism which has been so important to the last year and acting on the review group’s recommendations, we can build a stronger future which has towns at its heart.

“Scotland is widely recognised for its innovative and progressive work to support its towns. There will be great interest across the UK in this report and the actions that follow from it.”

Phil Prentice is also National Director of Scotland’s Improvement Districts and was a member of the Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review Group.

Notes

  1. For full details about the Town Centre Action Plan Review, to see the complete report, its findings and evidence, go to www.futuretowns.scot, or follow #futuretowns
  2. In July 2020 Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell MSP, set up a Review Group, chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks, to review the Town Centre Action Plan and to consider how Scotland’s towns centres can be made greener, healthier, more equitable and inclusive places and to come forward with a revised plan for action for towns and town centres.
  3. The terms of reference for the independent Expert Review Group were: “To review the progress and scope of the Town Centre Action Plan, published in response to the National Review of Town Centres conducted in 2013 by Malcolm Fraser and the Expert Advisory Group, and produce a report detailing its findings with a revised vision for towns and a means to deliver that vision nationally and locally.
  4. The review group adopted a vision for towns and town centres: “Towns and town centres are for the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centre successful.”
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