With the Scottish Government’s national review of town centres well under way and views currently being sought on SPP the RTPI (ELBF Chapter) together with Planning Aid (Scotland) hosted an informal but lively debate on the future of Scotland’s town centres.
Presentations were given by Tim Ferguson (Ferguson Planning), Nick Wright (Nick Wright Planning) and David Thompson (DPT Urban Design/Fife Council) with the aim of trying to understand how we can secure the future of our town centres via better planning, engagement and place making.
A common theme throughout the event was the need for greater evidence from which to move forward. It was considered vital to understand more fully what makes up our town centres, how people use them and to try to forecast what the future may hold based on current/historic trends. A collaborative vision and approach was seen as being vital to this process.
The production of a Town Centre and Retail Planning Portal was one example of how planning could assist and resource the process. The purpose of the portal would be to provide: evidence on the performance and what exists in our town centres, best practice on town centre strategies and advice to local authorities and key stakeholders on how to create local ‘Town Teams’ that will deliver actions on the ground.
Indicative Town Centre and Retail Planning Portal
Flexibility in town centre strategies was thought necessary in order to appreciate the differing local commercial, social and encironmental realities that make up town centre across Scotland. The decline in Class 1 retails as a result of, amongst other things, the ever growing e-commerce sector, was largely accepted and raised the question of: if retail makes up a signicant prportion of our town centre and is in decline how should we evolve as a result? It was through that town centres will be come more social and living spaces which would enable greater vibrancy as a result, particularly beyond 5pm. It was also thought necessary to relax the restrictive use class policies applied to many High Streets to enable diversification and to tackle the growing number of vancant units. This must, however, be on the proviso that it does not significantly affect other uses within our town centres (eg. residential above shops).
A review of national and local planning policy was highlighted with some concern on the lack of implementation of ‘Improving Town Centres’ outlines within SPP (eg. para. 57-61). Are Development Plans taking appropriate steps to accommodate and identify development opportunities? Are regular town centre health checks and guidance on town centre strategies taking place across Scotland? There appeared to be inconsistencies with some authorities doing it better than others.
It is understood that the lack of funding or resources is responsible for many shortcomings but the ‘Do Nothing’ scenario is quite clearly not an option and, as such, more effort is needed in preparing and implementing Town Centre Strategies. Positive steps were noted as being taken by the public and private sectors in supporting Business
Improvement Districts (BIDs). Private landlords are beginning to realise the benefits of a collaborative approach in working with their tenants and local authorities to ensure sustainable economic growth.
The Better Regulation Bill seeks to support economic and business growth and it is hoped that in addition to BIDs further financial support will be provided to authorities and ‘Town Teams’. Particularly for those in rural areas and those that are being squeezed by the larger centres located nearby (eg. Fort William / Motherwell).
A more strict hand to out of centre retail was another key area raised during the debate. While it was seen to be welcomed by most it would require more pro‐active planning in properly identifying town centre sites that meet current and future retail, social and leisure needs in full. Failure to do so will mean that edge of centre followed by out of centre sites will continue to have a role to play.
The Scottish Government are looking closely at the form and function of the modern day town centre and the conclusions of the the national town centre review and updated SPP are eagerly anticipated. It is hoped that these documents, when produced, will assist in providing more:
Consistency: Meeting SPP requirements in full not in part
Understanding: Evidence to plan positively
Pro‐active planning: Identify and deliver what people want
Skills and Resources: Empower those that care the most about their town centres