Brian Wilson: Empty shops are a concern, not indyref2

Local issues should be at the heart of next month's council elections, not the constitutional politics. Picture: John Devlin
Local issues should be at the heart of next month's council elections, not the constitutional politics. Picture: John Devlin
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It seems some of our politicians are determined council elections should be fought over whether there should be another independence referendum, writes Brian Wilson.

I spent the last few days in a pleasant European town. It has a lively centre. The streets are clean, small businesses proliferate, there are hardly any empty shops. All this in a country that was quite recently regarded as an economic basket case. What is there not to like?
It may not be the same everywhere but, in my experience, that is pretty much the norm – regardless of whether the country is inside or outside the EU. We talk a lot about our love of Europe while doing ­little to educate ourselves in things our neighbours do much better. The most useful Ministerial travels should be those that involve learning.

A few years ago, one of the big NGOs surveyed Scottish opinion on environmental priorities – hoping, I suspect, for resounding endorsements on improving issues like ­global warming and renewable energy.

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In fact, folk were less ­worried about the fate of the planet than the environment which ­surrounded them – litter, dog-fouling, anti-social neighbours, and so on. It should have been an important message to policy-makers.

High on that list of environmental concerns came empty shops and the dire state of many town ­centres.

Scotland should copy thriving shopping streets like those of Cologne. Picture: Patrik Stollarz (AFP/Getty Images)

Scotland should copy thriving shopping streets like those of Cologne. Picture: Patrik Stollarz (AFP/Getty Images)

Matters have not improved in the intervening period. Residents of communities which were built around flourishing town or ­suburban centres now hurry through semi-derelict embarrassments with a sense of despair, or steer clear of them altogether.

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So the cycle continues.

If devolution was working, this could be a wonderful focus for ­Scottish Government action – regardless of party politics.

All ­relevant powers reside in ­Edinburgh. So let’s do things differently. Let’s do things creatively.

Let’s import good ideas from around Europe.

Let’s transform conditions which depress communities and thus make people’s lives better.

An exciting challenge – or a tedious ­distraction from what is now ­mistaken for “real politics”?

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The Scottish Government set up a working group in 2012 which made some useful recommendations and a range of actions was promised in response. There is no evidence they add up to any kind of radical, integrated programme, with ongoing political impetus, which would make much difference in the face of strong counter-winds.

Meanwhile, the problem is not going away. Figures published this week showed that shops are continuing to close in Scotland at a faster rate than elsewhere in the UK, ­partly because we had more of them to start with.

The Scottish Retail Consortium published a report recently which warned that almost a quarter of our shops could be lost over the next decade.

If allowed to proceed without radical antidotes, what will that do to every main street and shopping ­centre in Scotland outside a handful of retail hot-spots? Retailing is Scotland’s biggest private sector source of employment, providing more than a quarter million jobs.

According to the Scottish Retail Consortium, “public policy is incentivising an approach of employing fewer people in fewer stores” with “disproportionate effects on less affluent or more remote communities”.

The report complained that “the impact of Scottish specific taxation makes operating in Scotland more expensive (than in the rest of the UK) and consequently affects retail investment”.

Even allowing for ­special pleading, these charges must be addressed as part of any comprehensive approach to the issue. An overhaul of business rates – “far and away the largest individual tax burden retailers face” – was promised but has not materialised.

Of course, a huge driver of change is the move to online shopping.

That only highlights how urgent it is to have a comprehensive, enabling strategy in place that covers all potential options, including town centre housing, which could be deployed to transformational effect. Flexible powers need to be given to local authorities to come up with pro-active, tailored solutions for the places they know best, backed up with legislative muscle.

The ideas do exist. For example, the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group report, published two years ago, included an excellent section on urban renewal, making the case for a “public-interest led” approach as is ­common in Europe. Yes, they had taken the trouble to find out what happens elsewhere and applied it to Scotland while also pointing out that this would “require clear leadership from the Scottish Government….”.

The group’s report stated the pretty obvious: “Keeping urban land and property vacant when someone else could put it to beneficial use impedes the chances of achieving sustainable and resilient settlements”. Better still, they proposed a number of practical solutions including the creation of a Compulsory Sale Order which would allow a local authority to force the sale by public auction of land and property that has lain vacant for an unreasonable length of time.

It added: “Legislation would be needed to define when a CSO could be exercised, who might have the power to do so and to which categories of land and property it might apply”.

Given that there has not been a ­single piece of legislation (other than its budget) to occupy the Scottish Parliament in the past year, would it not have been possible to adopt that single, sensible recommendation during this fallow period and thus, by now, give local authorities a powerful new tool?

In a more rational climate, these are matters which would be attracting attention in the run-up to local government elections. How can councils be expected to improve local environments when their budgets are being savagely cut? Which party is offering ­powers which will allow colleagues at local level to make communities work better and address the ­concerns of the electorate? Or does that sound too rationally European an approach to politics?

Instead, it seems some of our politicians are determined that the council elections should be fought as a popularity poll around the question of whether there should be another referendum on Scottish independence. Indeed, when asked to write about his election priorities, the leader of the Nationalist group on Edinburgh City Council did not mention a single local issue while attacking his opponents as alien forces “who see some value in identifying themselves as Scottish” for electoral purposes.

Well, at least Edinburgh voters know where he stands and can judge accordingly. Quite simply – is his priority their priority? Or do local environments actually matter more than political zealotry, in any form?