PLANNERS are being urged by a group of planning experts to put “town centres first” and regenerate Scotland’s flagging urban communities.
A review commissioned by the Scottish Government warned that a strong mix of leisure, public facilities and homes are needed in town centres to create a thriving community – and should be prioritised over out-of-town developments, which have been blamed for contributing to the closure of many independent retailers on main shopping streets.
The National Review of Town Centres, led by architect Malcolm Fraser, also warned that public bodies should consider the impact of proposals to relocate back-office public services to out-of-town locations.
Mr Fraser, chair of the external advisory group, warned that a preference for stand-alone shopping centres had left many Scots feeling “disenfranchised” from their local community.
“Town centres allow us to share resources and services,” he said. “Their density means that shops, workplaces, leisure, culture and public services are near, and if we don’t actually live amongst them, they are still where public transport goes, and are accessible to the whole community.
“Not all of us drive, and we are disenfranchised by a scattered, out-of-town environment accessible only by car.”
Around one in ten shops is currently lying empty on high streets in Scotland, with some towns suffering from a much higher concentration of vacant stores.
Council leaders have turned to innovative alternatives to fill the void – such as using them as advertising hoardings – or in Paisley, to create a chain of imaginary shops in a bid to inspire people to open stores on vacant sites.
The proposals do not apply only to retail, but would also steer property developers to sites as close to town as feasibly possible, rather than building on more remote greenfield sites.
The blueprint for the regeneration of towns does not explicitly condemn out-of-town shopping centres, but sends a clear signal to decision-makers that town centres should be supported before considering development elsewhere.
“Town-centre retail may be hard-pressed but, as we suggest, its great advantage over out-of-town or the internet is that it is part of a rich and social mix of homes, businesses, parks, culture, leisure and institutional uses,” said the report.
Mr Fraser said that new retail buildings should not be created in favour of refurbishing existing older properties.
“Here, as elsewhere, it can seem easier to go for the new and shiny, over repairing the old,” he added. “The lesson we should learn from our financial trouble is the same as that needed to address the challenge of climate change: that we need to be less reckless with resources, and make best use of our existing, renewable ones before discarding them. In the built environment, that’s our old buildings and existing town centres.”
Retail experts warned that shops and businesses should not be forgotten in favour of social and cultural elements.
“This report provides a starting point to focus attention on our town centres which are facing unprecedented challenges,” said Fiona Moriarty, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium.
“It is clear that if town centres are to flourish then they must diversify to include living, social, cultural and leisure activities.
“However, in doing so we mustn’t lose sight that retail is at the heart of Scottish communities and should remain a key component of any successful town centre. This means that lowering the costs and complexities of doing business on our high streets must be seen as a priority.”
The report also lays out plans to work with housing providers to bring empty town centre properties back into use as affordable housing and a recommendation for a review of current business rates incentivisation schemes in town centres.
Jim Metcalfe, practice and development manager at the Carnegie UK Trust, which last week launched Test Town in Dunfermline – an initiative which allows groups of young people to try out their ideas to regenerate the high street – welcomed the report.
“The National Review of Town Centres is the starting gun that will help to rebuild our town centres as places to visit, shop in and live in,” he said.
Case study: Warnings ignored, and Paisley town centre died
A SHORT walk around Paisley town centre on a Thursday afternoon and it is not hard to see the extent of the problems: streets studded with “To Let” signs above shuttered shops, graffiti scrawled across gable-ends and a surfeit of budget outlets, pawn shops and bookies – in the latter’s case, three sit side-by-side on a main street.
Speak to local residents, and there’s a sense this malaise is both long-standing and intractable.
Peter Leonard, 49, blamed the pedestrianisation of the town centre in 1997 as the start of the rot: “The taxi drivers warned everyone at the time that stopping traffic coming into the centre would drive shoppers away, and they were right.
“This used to be a thriving place, but it’s half-empty now. It’s a little better at the weekend, but mostly people just jump on the bus to Braehead shopping centre, or if they want a night out, they go to Glasgow. As it is, most of the pubs have shut here.”
Re-opening the roads wouldn’t help, said Mr Leonard. “I think people are just fed up with the place,” he explained.
Renfrewshire Council Leader Mark Macmillan believes an integrated approach is helping.
He said: “We are seeing positive results. Last month, ambitious plans were confirmed for a combination of 40 flats along with retail space on the site of the iconic former Arnott’s store”
But for Carol Wallace, 29, the town needs shops rather than flats.
She said: “I really miss Arnott’s, I used to spend most of my wages there. I think if they were to bring in a few good big shops, like Republic and Starbucks, that would start to bring people in.”
Craig McLaren: Looking beyond retail to generate new life
WE WELCOME the proposals in the report, but its success will be in how do you actually implement some of these ideas.
The Scottish Government has already made moves to put elements of this report into its draft planning policy document, which shows they are serious about the proposals.
That should set the scene for planning authorities to take on board the proposal to put town centres first.
The big difference with this report is that it looks beyond retail.
We are considering anything that generates footfall in a town centre – whether that be cultural facilities or services.
The aim is to make town centres more rounded so that people go there for other things rather than just shopping – the idea is to push everyone towards the town centre much more, where they can meet and have fun.
In terms of housing, at the moment, some builders favour greenfield sites which are more remote from the centre of a town – because its is easier for them.
This will definitely not be the easiest option, but it will mean that people have the opportunity to live close to where there are other services and where the infrastructure is.
That is what planners will have to consider before granting any kind of out-of-town planning permission.
They will also have to consider the policy of holding together parcels of land in town centres which could be packaged and sold off together, whether as retail or other developments.
We are already seeing less demand for out-of-town retail due to a number of factors – the economy, but also the internet and I think people are seeing the benefits of being in a town centre.
Hopefully the report’s recommendations would see some of the slack of the empty shops in Scotland’s town centres taken up.
• Craig McLaren is national director of the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland.
FROM FRIENDS OF THE SCOTSMAN