Revitalised town and city centres can help Highland communities tackle the triple challenges of coronavirus recovery, the climate emergency and cost of living crisis.

That was the message as measures to rejuvenate and regenerate local high streets and economies were explored during a special event in Inverness.

Business and local authority executives from the region were among those who discussed how a blueprint to put town centres first is key to unlocking a stronger, more sustainable future, which includes more people shopping and spending locally.

And they heard how creativity and commitment from people and projects across the Highlands - including the Highland Food and Drink Club and the £30m Inverness Castlehill Project - are helping tap into that potential.

Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) staged the event as part of a series discussing the Response from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) to the New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres report. That response - Scotland’s Town Centre Action Plan Review (TCAP2) - was published earlier this year.

STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice said: “With innovation, collaboration and leadership we can secure a better future for the Highlands and across Scotland. We can do this by putting our town and city centres first, making them places where we live, work and visit.

“We are facing up to coronavirus recovery, a cost of living crisis and the climate emergency. These are huge challenges, but they also create opportunities to help us reset and rebuild with policies which put local communities at the heart of recovery.

“The New Future for Scotland’s Towns report, and the response to it, creates a firm foundation for that. Listening to the people and projects we’re working with across the Highlands, the determination to build from it is clear.”

Among those who spoke at the event was John Murray, Founding Director of Highland Food & Drink Club. He highlighted the critical part that the food and hospitality sector plays across the region.

Mr Murray said: “In these challenging times it is even more important for town and city centres to offer their local communities and visitors an attractive proposition to increase footfall and spend.

“In order to breathe new life into our centres, mixed use is without doubt the future – including retail, hospitality, leisure, services and accommodation – coupled with some remodelling of infrastructure to encourage environmentally-friendly transport.

“Deep and meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders - the communities, public, private and third sectors - is vital if we are to address the challenges ahead.”

The importance of tourism to town centres was a major part of the discussions.

Chris Taylor, VisitScotland’s Regional Leadership Director, said: “From visitor attractions and shopping to history and culture and food and drink, Scotland’s town centres offer something for everyone and are vital for both local communities and visitors.

“We know the cost of living is having an impact on spending habits, so it is more important than ever that we work together to help businesses within them to recover from the challenges of the last two-and-a-half years. By supporting local towns, we are supporting communities, helping protect the places and businesses you love to visit and rebuilding our valuable visitor economy.

“The tourism sector is one of the most important sectors in Scotland and tourism is a positive force – it brings in money, creates jobs and underpins many of the services that we all rely on.”

With the cultural and creative sectors key components of the Highland economy, the Inverness Castlehill Project was highlighted as an example of how ambition and collaboration can trigger significant investment.

Due to open in 2025, the new castle attraction is supported by Scottish and UK Governments, The Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a range of other partners. It is aimed at stimulating sustainable regional economic growth.

Creative Director Bryan Beattie said: “The Inverness Castle project is the largest cultural investment in the city for 60 years. The scale of it is incredible and the ambition of it is equally large - looking to attract upwards of 400,000 new visitors every year.

“It will be significant in changing the emphasis of the city centre, but also in the range of things there are to do, both during the day and in the evening.”

The Scottish Government hopes that the TCAP2 document will help deliver net-zero climate ambitions while, in partnership with local government, promoting better planning and delivering enhanced digital capabilities for businesses and residents.

Actions from the TCAP2 report include:

  • Embedding a town centre first approach to meet community needs and tackle climate change
  • Incentivising entrepreneurship
  • Limiting out-of-town developments
  • Encouraging digital transformation
  • Exploring a new online sales tax to help traditional businesses compete with those operating online

The full report can be read here.

The work of Business Improvement Districts in Inverness, Loch Ness and Elgin was also highlighted as part of the Inverness event, held at the Glenmoriston Hotel.

Views gathered will be shared with the Scottish Government to shape policies to revitalise local economies.

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