The latest study charting the crisis of town centres (17 December) makes depressingly familiar reading. The impact on retailing of out-of-town shopping and e-commerce is familiar, though the detailed evidence provided by the study, from the Local Data Company, Institute for Retail Studies and University of Stirling, is valuable.
Retailing is important, and I endorse the calls for planners to “put town centres first”. However, we need to grasp the wider picture. Politicians and departments in central and local government also need to “put town centres first”.
Rationalisation of services to achieve “efficiency gains” is resulting in relocations of schools, and the offices of government agencies or local authorities, to sites on the edge of towns.
The consequent loss of footfall and trade in the town centre is not included in the accountancy. Fine public buildings, landmarks occupying key sites in the town centres, are lying empty across Scotland’s towns.
Practical action is needed fast if we are to get out of the downward spiral of disinvestment and drab decay.
There is some good local work being done by Business Improvement Districts, but we need to look for a vision and a commitment from the Scottish Government and the local authorities. They, and the NHS, could review the location of all their offices and actively seek to “put town centres first”.
At worst this could stem the drain that has been occurring. More positively, an active policy of investment in refurbishment and re-use of historic buildings in the town centres could boost jobs and sustain trade skills.
(Emeritus Prof) Cliff Hague
Built Environment Forum Scotland