LEADING architect Malcolm Fraser is to head a review of Scotland’s town centres in a move aimed at breathing new life into the country’s dilapidated high streets.
Fraser will lead a Scottish Government task force charged with reversing the trend that has seen businesses move to the outskirts, leaving lifeless town centres characterised by empty shops and economic decline.
The task force, which includes business leaders, academics and cultural representatives, will report back to the newly appointed infrastructure secretary, Nicola Sturgeon.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Fraser, who runs an award-winning architectural firm in Edinburgh, pledged that his work will be more ambitious than retail guru Mary Portas’s attempt to revive high streets south of the Border.
As his appointment as the chair of the government’s National Review of Town Centres was announced, Fraser said he would try to be more imaginative than the high-profile campaign run by the television presenter and high-street tsar for England and Wales.
In Scotland, Fraser hopes to change property law, look at rents and planning to encourage more people to live in high streets, and promote a cultural renewal of town centres that goes beyond Portas’s vision of better shopping areas. “I am less glamorous and much less of a celebrity, but maybe that might be a good thing,” said Fraser.
He said Scottish ministers had told him that the government hoped his study would be more wide-ranging than the one conducted by Portas, London’s leading retail expert, known for her television show Mary Queen Of Shops.
Prior to his appointment, Fraser held discussions with Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Neil. “The minister observed that this study had been done in England – the Mary Portas one – and there was a feeling that it had been really limited to just retail window-dressing,” said Fraser.
“The minister was very keen that we did better in Scotland. We were more imaginative and more wide-ranging. Future town centres cannot rely on retail.”
Last week, statistics compiled by the Local Data Company found that an average of 14.6 per cent of shops per town now lie empty across Britain.
The vacancies were blamed on a dramatic drop in consumer spending, which the LDC calculated is now back at 2002 levels.
A key part of Fraser’s approach will be to encourage people to move back into town centres by increasing the length of long-term leases that high-street companies can rent out their properties for. Currently, companies are unable to rent out rooms in their properties for more than 20 years. Fraser wants to increase leases to 150 years, a move he feels will stimulate more activity in the high street.
“There are lots of empty residential properties,” said Fraser. “The reason for that is that companies own the buildings. They are not going to sell the buildings, because they have to control the whole building.
“If this were England, they could nevertheless sell 150-year leases, which is as good as selling them. But in Scotland there is this legal maximum of length of lease of 20 years. So they sit empty.”
Also taking part in the review will be a panel of experts made up of organisations including Ernst & Young, the Association of Town Centre Managers, Scottish Retail Consortium, Creative Scotland, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Stirling University and the Federation of Small Businesses.
At the heart of the initiative will be attempts to stimulate a cultural rebirth in town centres by building upon the huge number of festivals that take place in towns across Scotland.
This aspect of the work is one in which Andrew Dixon, the chief executive of Creative Scotland, has taken an interest. Dixon said: “Many of Scotland’s towns are already using their cultural strengths to revitalise and renew their communities: for example, Scotland is host to at least 280 festivals. Places like West Kilbride, which is using the focus of ‘crafts’ to attract and retain new micro-businesses, or Wigtown and Ullapool, with their thriving book festivals.”
Fraser said he wanted to reverse the drift away from the centre to the outskirts of towns. One of his suggestions is to base clubs and societies in high-street properties.
“If you can find ten ideas, put the local bridge club with community business with some dance club, together with a nursery, that is starting up,” Fraser said. “Bring those people together and suddenly the community coalesces around a building which is being used.”
Initiatives such as these would be more effective in a time of economic crisis than previous attempts to develop large theme pubs and luxury flats in town centres.
“The markets for these things have gone. People aren’t doing luxury flats, because people can’t get mortgages any more. Pubs are closing, so we are not putting an enormous super-pub in every old church,” Fraser said.
In her new role as infrastructure secretary, Sturgeon said: “We, along with our partner agencies, will use this review to inform future budgets and investments going forward, to make sure we are collectively investing at the right level and in the right places.”