Falling consumer demand, vacant retail premises and the resulting dilapidation which blight many towns today are beyond simple, single agency solutions. We cannot plan our way out of town-centre decline, neither can we spend or trade our way out of it. And we certainly can’t criticise our way out of it either.
A better answer is a more sustained, mixed approach that gets residents, business and government involved in equal measure, identifying the problems and their prescriptions, and designing “whole town” strategies that actually get off the drawing-board and into reality.
The review into the future of town centres, launched last year by Nicola Sturgeon and chaired by Malcolm Fraser, promises some progress. Turning that review’s recommendations into practical actions, however, will take political courage and multi-sector support.
We particularly need town partnerships to focus on reducing the barriers of cost and regulation to young entrepreneurs in Scotland. Younger consumers are the future – so young social and commercial entrepreneurs must be a big part of identifying what our towns need to look like and need to do in the years ahead.
How many budding young entrepreneurs today can honestly say that starting up on their local high street is their life’s ambition? Changing that will help to start changing the fortunes of our struggling towns.
Doing something practical and immediate about this problem is why, this year, the Carnegie UK Trust has launched its £10,000 town-centre talent search, TestTown UK. This is the most ambitious nationwide search yet for breakthrough ideas for using town-centre space, emphasising the value of unlocking the potential of young innovators.
Ten of the best new ideas will be showcased in June in Dunfermline: politicians, businesspeople and community leaders grappling with this challenge will be welcome to see what the future could look like.
• Jim Metcalfe is practice and development manager at the Carnegie UK Trust.