Steps needed to secure new future in spotlight as Scottish Parliament Economy and Fair Work Committee calls for action to stop long-term decline

The Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) has welcomed the findings of a Scottish Parliament report into securing a stronger future for the nation’s town centres.

Phil Prentice says the findings of MSPs on Holyrood’s Economy and Fair Work Committee’s reinforces what needs to be done in order to tackle challenges and seize opportunities.

STP is the national collective which champions towns and places.

The inquiry into retail and town centres included visiting a number of towns so politicians could see issues on the ground. It also heard expert evidence from people including Mr Prentice and STP’s Chair, the leading retail academic Professor Leigh Sparks.

The inquiry concluded that Scotland's planning system needs to be strengthened to ensure no new developments unfairly compete with town centre provision - alongside a rebalancing of the cost of doing business to make town centres more competitive, including how non-domestic rates currently operate to support investment in town centres.

MSPs also said that every town in Scotland should have its own town plan, a long-term strategic vision for the future that recognises the unique nature of towns, their histories and the community that brings them together. They want this to be driven locally and “not imposed from the top down”.

Transparency of ownership and powers to tackle derelict or dangerous buildings also need further action, the report concluded.

Mr Prentice, who is also programme director for Scotland’s Improvement Districts, said: “I commend the work of the MSPs on the Economy and Fair Work Committee following a very comprehensive inquiry which underpins how important our town centres are to Scotland. This is a report that clearly outlines what needs to be done.

“Importantly, the report picks up on some of the more systemic problems affecting our town centres, including those around taxation and the need to reward good behaviour.

“It’s our view is that non-domestic rates need to be reviewed and brought in line with a more modern, digital economy. We need to look at VAT, including changes to encourage town centre living. If you build a house in a green belt it’s zero-rated at VAT, but if you build in a town centre you have to pay 20%. These are difficult issues to address, but they require attention to unlock development and improvement.

“Town centres are complex places yet they have a critical part to play in the ongoing recovery from coronavirus and in addressing the climate emergency. If everyone works together we can repurpose, reinvent and reimagine them to secure a stronger better future.”

The full report is available to read here. Specific recommendations from MSPs included:

  • Strengthening the National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) to ensure that any proposed developments can demonstrate that town centre sites have been pursued and thoroughly evaluated and that developments will have no adverse impact on town centres and will not compete with town centre provision.
  • The overarching principle must be rebalancing the cost of doing business in town centres versus out-of-town sites. Approaches that could be considered include giving Councils the power to levy an out-of-town development premium or a business rates surcharge which could then be used for town centre regeneration.
  • The current non-domestic rates (NDR) system acts as a disincentive when trying to attract businesses back to our town centres. For businesses already located in town centres, the current NDR system acts as a disincentive to invest in already occupied property, as any investment leads to an increase in NDR. The Committee consistently heard that the current system works against investment and growth in town centre retail and that the NDR system should be rebalanced to support town centre development.
  • There is strong demand amongst Scotland's smaller retailers for more and better support to build their online presence and to be able to take advantage of platforms that already exist. A broader range of opportunities must be made available to upskill, strengthen and future-proof our retail workforce.
  • Transparency of beneficial ownership of town centre property and land and absentee owners can still be a problem, particularly where an individual lives or is based overseas. It is the Committee’s strong view that all property and landowners should be contactable and there should be clarity on who the owner is. The Scottish Government has said its focus is on Compulsory Purchase Orders. The Committee is of the view that the Scottish Government’s actions may be insufficient and that more may need to be to address this problem.
  • Local authorities have a range of powers available to them to tackle derelict or dangerous buildings but they are not used as frequently or proactively as we would like. There can be a reluctance to resort to those statutory powers, in part due to a lack of resources to carry actions through. The Committee welcomes the Scottish Government's commitment to reform and modernise the compulsory purchase orders.
  • The Committee recognises the value of, and increased demand for, online and e-commerce activities and the importance of increasing the use of technology as a driver of increased productivity. A strategically driven action plan should be developed by the Scottish Government to support the take-up of training and capacity building to support Scotland's eCommerce activity.

Mr Prentice added: “As the report indicates, it’s taken a long time to damage our town centres. It will take many years for us to repair them. There is a long journey ahead, but this report helps point us in the right direction.

“Now that retail has shifted, we need to think imaginatively about how we fill those vacant spaces to bring people and energy back into towns. There are a great many opportunities.”

The committee report follows the publication of another key document..

STP hosted a series of roadshows throughout Scotland this summer examining the Response from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) to the New Future for Scotland’s Towns report. That response - Scotland’s Town Centre Action Plan Review (TCAP2) - was published earlier this year.

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