Save high streets and town centres, councils urged

Derek Mackay yesterday announced the Town Centres First principle. Picture: Emma MitchellDerek Mackay yesterday announced the Town Centres First principle. Picture: Emma Mitchell
Derek Mackay yesterday announced the Town Centres First principle. Picture: Emma Mitchell
Councils and other public bodies are being urged to sign up to an agreement that would see them prioritise Scotland’s town centres when making decisions about moving facilities.

Agencies, including the NHS and Police Scotland, are being called upon to weigh up the potential impact of moving facilities to out-of-town locations against the benefits of keeping their town centres “healthy and vibrant”.

Local government and planning minister Derek Mackay yesterday announced the “Town Centres First” principle in a bid to revive Scotland’s struggling hubs. Retail experts welcomed the move but warned action was needed to bring the policy to life.

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An expert group set up to examine how to breathe life into town centres, chaired by architect Malcolm Fraser, called for the approach to be adopted last summer. Cosla, umbrella body for Scotland’s councils, lent its backing. Mr Fraser said that the policy would avoid short-term fixes. “To have the government and Cosla working together to establish the Town Centre First principle is exactly the result we hoped for,” he said.

Mr Mackay said: “Our town centres should be vibrant, attractive and safe places where local people want to spend their time and money. When it comes to investment, public bodies adopting the principle are requested to consider town centre locations first, and look beyond immediate pressures when making decisions about closing a town centre facility.

“We understand that for some businesses or services the town centre may not be suitable, but in signing up to the principle, public bodies will make sure the rationale for locating elsewhere is evidenced and transparent.”

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at Stirling University, welcomed the plan. He said: “Clearly, it is a positive move. My sole concern is that it is not a duty or a prerequisite, so what is the incentive to sign up?”

The Federation of Small Businesses pointed to 100 Scottish towns facing a local closure because of a big business or public sector reorganisation.

“We have to make our high streets attractive to all sorts of organisations,” said Scottish policy convener Andy Willox.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said: “Our towns and high streets have a great deal to offer, and a clear framework to encourage public investment is sensible.

“One in every ten shops remains vacant and so to spur additional private sector expansion further action is required to make it easier and less costly for retailers to invest in our towns.”

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Scottish Conservative spokesman Gavin Brown said: “The review group should be praised.

“Unfortunately, the Scottish Government seems to have done the opposite, closing sheriff courts and police stations.”