Richard Slipper: Radical response can boost our town centres

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SCOTLAND’S planning authorities need to more stringently enforce policies that prioritise and encourage the development of central city sites instead of locations outwith town centres.

While Scotland has already undertaken bold planning reforms, more needs to be done to accelerate the pace of new developments. This week the Scottish Government issued the new Scottish Planning Policy document, which, together with the forthcoming Town Centre Report, should go some way towards creating a better environment for delivery.

Only a radical approach to urban planning will address the dwindling number of retail outlets in the high street. With the Office for National Statistics’ December 2012 figures revealing online spending was 15.5 per cent higher than 2011, urban planners face a major challenge to attract retailers to sell from floorspace rather than cyberspace.

When it comes to delivering town centre developments, there are still too many delays. Plans can stall for a number of reasons, from financing, waning developer interest and unviable cashflow to weak occupier demand. The time lag between a site being designed and being build-ready means numerous developments in Scotland exist only as plans and are not on tap should demand return.

Facilitating developments should be a priority, not least because it creates more sustainable jobs than the drift to warehouse, pick-and-pack production lines. However, prime city-centre developments will not happen without public and private sector willingness to take risks. The focus should be on potential prime pitch frontages in urban centres, where footfall is strong.

Although planning policy emphasises that all commercial and civic uses should consider central sites first, there are still too many moves to develop greenfield before a more central site has been tested. Planning authorities should be open to new building projects, from retail to residential and leisure to other public sector occupiers such as civic offices, health, schools and community facilities. There is scope for mixed usage in urban centres.

• Richard Slipper is a director of property consultant GVA.