Out-of-town shopping centres have played a part in the sorry state of many Scottish town centres. But so has out-of-town everything else. Town centres are about more than just their high streets and recovery will require major change in planning attitudes and practices, says Professor Leigh Sparks
WE are in interesting times in Scotland – and not just in the countdown to the independence referendum.
It is all too easy – yet of course important – for retailers to get caught up in the moment of cigarette packaging, alcohol pricing, minimum wage, rates and other operational impacts. But less dramatically, yet possibly more fundamentally for the medium term, planning consultation and the National Review of Town Centres are pointing to changes in the emphasis for development in Scotland.
One of the running themes in debates during, and in the report of, the Town Centre Review was the concept of ‘Town Centre First’. This is of course not a new idea for retailing. It has been a principle for land-use planning and development for some years, linked to the idea of the ‘sequential test’, where developers are required to assess whether there is a suitable site first in town centres, followed by edge-of-centre sites, before considering out-of-centre sites.
It is important to recognise that the National Town Centre review was not a review of high streets or retailing, but was about places and town centres. You can’t save the high street if you couldn’t care less about towns and town centres.
And when we think about town centres what do we see? Many of our town centres are in a form of arrested decay especially when we look above the ground floor level. Buildings, including shops, are unoccupied, empty, sometimes semi-derelict and life and energy has disappeared from what should be vibrant places and spaces.
Many of these towns and town centres have suffered from decentralisation. Everyone focuses all too simplistically on out-of-town retailing, and it has undoubtedly played its part, but it is only a part. Look around many towns and we’ve decentralised and built away from centres when it comes to schools, houses and accommodation, cinemas, hotels, leisure facilities, football grounds, offices and local government services, offices and headquarters. If we’ve blown away all the reasons for people to want or need to go to town centres, then why should we be surprised when they stop going there at all?
This decentralisation has taken place in part because we’ve made it easier, simpler and cheaper to build anew and to operate on undeveloped sites. In the public sector we’ve also valued economic short-term value over the longer-term social and economic value of places. And for those users that do remain in town centres we’ve often made it more difficult or more expensive to operate and made it harder and less convenient for consumers to access.
In the public sector we’ve valued economic short-term value over the longer-term social and economic value of places
So Town Centre First takes the existing idea in previous planning legislation, where it is applied to retailing, and suggests it is applied to all other development, including the public sector. It’s not as simple as that, as Town Centre First has been avoided in some locations and the sequential test has been used and abused, as have some impact assessments. The process of Town Centre First development needs strengthening and taking more seriously.
If we want successful town centres and high streets within them, we have to rebalance what we value and where we seek to place development, accommodation, jobs and people. And the national planning consultation suggests doing just that, building on the principles we have and expanding their remit and operation.
This changed emphasis is part of the re-balancing needed to bring life back into our town centres and thus our high streets. It is only a part however, given the multiple reasons for the decline of town centres (and high streets) and needs to be supported by other operational measures on costs, rates, parking, access, living etc.
Town Centre First is not a retail issue alone, as important as retail is in town centres, but the changes proposed in the Town Centre Review and in the planning consultation recognise that places matter in Scotland and that we need to support and value them better.
Image – Leigh Sparks is professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling www.stirlingretail.com. He runs a blog on Scottish retailing. He was on the National Town Centres Review Group and is a board member of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.