Pontypool vs Penarth: Rugby and The High Street and Town of 1951

This post has been ready for some time, but I thought I would publish it today, as it is National Sporting Heritage Day. If you are reading this on the 30th in Stirling then the University is hosting a pop-up event on our Commonwealth Games Archive between 1-5 pm. This post is about some of the personal sporting heritage that I possess.

Readers of this blog will be aware that my father played rugby.  Since his death I have occasionally tried to sort out and organise some of the artefacts he left. A few weeks ago I started looking at his rugby programmes and something caught my eye.

His rugby career began aged 19, when he started playing for Pontypool.  Quite why Pontypool is another story given he lived miles away, and quite why Pontypool tried him on the wing, centre, second row, lock (No 8) and wing forward in his first few games must be another.  But they persevered and he played over 20 games for them in his one and only season in Monmouthshire.

But what caught my eye was the programme for Penarth vs Pontypool in early March 1951.  This was one of the few ‘away’ programmes amongst a collection of ‘home’ Pontypool ones for that year.  It was the adverts that seemed so different.  So, I took a closer look at the Penarth programme, and a home Pontypool one from two weeks later.  Scanned versions of both programme are in the slideshows in this blog.

These I feel can be used as representatives of these two towns, as the programmes seem to be essentially the same all season, varying only in team sheets and club secretary updates and a column or two.  Most of the pages are unchanged in every programme – for cost reasons one suspects.

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The volume of adverts, at a time of rationing (one butcher asks for customers to register), is impressive, but the nature, style and content got me thinking.  The table below summarises the two programmes by the number of adverts by line of business.  The sheer variety is immediate, but closer inspection reveals, I think, more.

 Categories (38) Penarth   Pontypool  
CTN 3 2
Printers 1 2
Menswear 2
Radio Engineer 2
Laundry 1
Grocers 2 3
Butchers 1 1
Radio Hire 1
Garage 2 1
Ballroom 1
Paint merchants/home decorators 1
Electrical 1 1
Barbers 1 1
Chemist/Opticians 1
Florists 1
Shoes 1 1
Fishmonger 1 2
Hotel 1 1
Cinema 1
Watchmaker/jeweller 1
Hairdresser (M) 1 1
Brewery 1
Builders Merchants 1
Photography 1
Auctioneer 1
Removals 1
Fish & Chips 1
Heating/plumbing 1
Café 2
Ironmonger 1
Coal merchants 1
Drapers 1
Furniture 1
Welding/engineer 1
Bus/coaches 1
Undertaker 1
Painter/decorator 1
Furnishings 1
Chivers Preserves 1
Total 29 32

Firstly, the adverts are essentially written only – there are few illustrations – and they bear very little by way of branding or logos.  They are to an extent visual, but design is about typography alone.  Is this a marketing or a publishing technology constraint?

Secondly, the adverts are very much for local businesses.  This is especially so in the Penarth programme, but even in the Pontypool one it extends only to a few surrounding local villages.  The adverts represent a local community supporting a local team and the close cultural and locational place bonds are apparent.  In the Penarth programme the business addresses suggest a tight grouping as well, focused as they are on the main shopping streets.  This local dimension also links to the lack of branding.  Many of these businesses are of course no longer trading.

Thirdly, there are some common elements across both programmes but also possibly surprisingly, large differences. The variation is really impressive and paints a picture of these local communities.  The CTN and grocers adverts are the most numerous (including in Pontypool, Daniel & Son, ‘the oldest and the best, still going strong as ever, over 160 years today’), but common elements include barbers, butchers, fishmongers, printers, garages, hotels and men’s hairdressers.  The differences, to my eye at least, tell a story of ‘posh’ Penarth vs the industrial or working class Pontypool, with the latter containing coal merchants, welders, ironmongers and amongst the grocers the Abersychan and Pontypool Co-operative Society.

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Finally, there are some (for today) oddities.  There is no mention anywhere of television (then nationally in its relative infancy) but there are radio engineers and radio hire.  Perhaps the strangest is the Pontypool undertaker who as well as funeral furnishings, cremations and embalming, offers out his Rolls Royce hearses and cars for weddings, concerts and ‘outing parties’.

These two programmes are snapshots to a bygone age of locality, place and community.  Some 65 years old, the adverts (and indeed the programmes themselves) point to the tight inter-linkages within community.  This local sense of place has been swept away in recent decades.  This is not to romanticise this past – or the retailers whose adverts are in the slide shows – nor to claim it was better then – I don’t know, but doubt it – but rather to highlight the changing nature of our places/towns, our high streets, people and businesses, through these cultural artefacts.

I have a feeling that this theme of change as seen through the artefacts my father left me might be one I revisit on occasion, and that there is much more to be done using this collection of programmes including more work on these two in particular.

In case you are wondering, at the end of his first senior rugby season, in Pontypool, my father was ‘enticed’ back to his home town, Bridgend (and a couple of interesting letters in his papers show how this happened).

And keen readers will recognise the name Sidoli in the Pontypool programme (both in rugby terms and in cultural terms); an example of the Italian influence throughout South Wales and its effect on our diet – chips, ice cream and coffee.

Posted in Advertising, Community, Cooperatives, Design, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Places, Retail History, Rugby Union, Small Shops, Towns, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boldly Going to the Borders

The 8th September this year was notable for a couple of anniversaries.  In 2015 the Queen formally re-opened the Borders Railway.  It was also 50 years since the first episode of Star Trek was broadcast; may retailers ‘live long and prosper’.  The Scottish Grocers Federation (SGF) celebrated the first of these anniversaries by hosting a Study Tour to Galashiels and beyond, to think about change, investment, competition and opportunities.


Which is why over 50 people commandeered one of the coaches on the 10.24 from Waverley to Galashiels and headed for the Galashiels Interchange Transport Hub.  Once there – on time, in comfort and accidentally accompanied by various walking groups and quite a few Americans – the SGF members heard from the  Scottish Borders Council, Abellio, Borders Blueprint and Scotland’s Towns Partnership.  These speakers set the scene, considering macro change in environments and how changing investment and patterns brought opportunity.  Whilst Borders towns are not all in the most robust of health, there is a sense of opportunity and potential in the right places.

The afternoon was more obviously retail focused with presentations and discussions on trading and developments from SPAR, Hawick, Tweed Bank Stores, Galashiels and Tempest Brewery before we headed by coach for the excellent Co-op store at Earlston.

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This was a very different emphasis to last year’s ‘taking on the discounters’ day out in Musselburgh, focusing as it did on broader ideas of opportunities, investment and competition.  So, what themes emerged?

For many, the perception is that the Borders is beautiful but remote.  But the coming (again) of the railway and a focus on the assets and opportunities that these connections bring alive, demonstrates that there are possibilities for retailers by both focusing on the new markets and behaviours and on the distinct identity and local pride of the Borders.

This identity, pride in place and sense of history, but with modernity, came through in the discussions about retail practices and the ways in which retailers can, and are forced to adapt, both in in-situ practices but also on new sites.  The Co-op at Earlston was a first class store visit to one such example.

There is no doubt that retailing in the Borders, as elsewhere faces challenges.  The historic town centres (and rivalry) are still a focus, but the decline of the textiles industry, the move to out-of-town premises including for retailing, have altered the status of their cores.  But the investment in the railway and other facilities and infrastructure promises new patterns of opportunity.  New connections mean new opportunities to be moulded and created.  This will not occur overnight and will need sustained vision.  How can retailers gain from the first-class transport interchange at Galashiels or the future presence of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry (main site here)linked to the railway?  How can retailers ‘capture’ the trade of the Americans and the walkers who accompanied us on a really dreich day on the train?  New thinking is required to match the new ambition.

This Borders identity and mentality also shone through in the resilience, self-reliance and pride in place of retailers and producers.  Local producers and products, such as Tempest Brewery or through Born in the Borders (their shop/café in the interchange as well as their main site) are providing a distinctive local flavour and colour to stores and places.


The study day was about recognising that change bring opportunities and not only headaches.  The Borders and Abellio are very keen to see new transport infrastructure and economic development policies combine to encourage retailers to think about the potential opportunities for investment and strengthening businesses and communities.  It is time perhaps to ‘boldly go’ (to the Borders).

Posted in Consumer Change, Convenience stores, Cooperative Group, Food Retailing, High Streets, Local Retailers, Places, Retail Change, Retailers, Rural, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Borders, Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, Scottish Grocers Federation, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retail Change in Scotland at Local Authority Level 2008-2014

The ‘last post’ (given the topic that may not be my most apt phrasing) focused on the Scottish level publication of the Scottish Annual Business Statistics 2014.  I am following up here with a look at the data at the Local Authority level.

To recap, this data source provides data from 2008-2014 on a range of retail measures at the SIC07 level.  I am focusing here on the data for shops, employment (headcount including owner-operators, self-employed etc.) and turnover at the LA level.  There are other data on GVA, labour costs and so on, but I do wonder, given the fluctuations that I observe in the data, about their value at this level.  I am also, as noted in the previous post, a little unsure of how internet sales are included or not and very much doubt they are really accurate at the Local Authority level.

The national picture is one of a decline in shops (by 6.8%), employment headcount (by 3.8%) but an increase in turnover (by 16.6%).  But what does this look like at the LA level?



The table above provides the data and some change calculations.  We can look at three elements in turn:

  1. Shops: Glasgow and Edinburgh have the most shops with Orkney and Shetland the fewest – no surprise there! But the different patterns of change are more varied.  South Ayrshire, Midlothian and East Lothian saw shop numbers grow, with the biggest declines being in West Dunbartonshire and Inverclyde.  Other steep declines were in Falkirk, Perth & Kinross and the Scottish Borders.
  2. Employment: The patterns for employment and employment change mirror in the main those for shop numbers, though there is no complete matching. Orkney and Shetland seem to be growing retail headcount from a very small base, but there are large declines in Falkirk, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire.
  3.  Turnover: These figures are more variable than might be expected perhaps. The scale is as expected in the main, but with a national 16.6% increase it is perhaps a surprise to see declines in East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Perth & Kinross and Stirling.  The particular reasons behind these vary and are due one suspects to consumer spending power and connectivity.  The biggest increases are seen in Na h-Eileanan Siar, Shetland, West Lothian, Scottish Borders, Angus and Orkney, which are an interesting collection of locations.

The second table, below, looks at employees and turnover per unit and how this has changed.



It is unclear how meaningful these data and calculations are at this level, but overall they seem to suggest that the headcount per store is rising in most places, as is the turnover per store. The exceptions in the latter case are the Ayrshires.

The discussion in the last post raised a few questions about these data, their meaning and the possible future trajectories.  Given the uncertainties perhaps all we can say is that the retail sector is undergoing a transformation in many dimensions.  Here, it is clear that at the LA level there are different trajectories.  These figures of course hide the patterns within local authorities and say nothing about the profitability of these businesses nor about the interventions that LAs can, and might have to make.

At the Scottish level the figures rather surprised me in that they do not fully show the change I feel is underway.  Given the recession and the change in shopping patterns I had expected a bleaker picture.  At the Local Authority level, there is more variability, but it is more difficult to discern patterns.  There seems perhaps to be some degree of enhanced self-reliance and expansion in island and some rural communities/local authorities (though not all) and there is a particular pattern of decline in the Ayrshires.  I would be interested in other thoughts/views on any patterns that can be discerned.

There is of course an issue with using Local Authority data as it masks as much as it reveals, with pattern across settlements within any local authority likely to be divergent.  It is a shame data such as these are not routinely produced at the place/town level (though the upcoming v2 of USP will say more on business change at town level).  I suspect we are in for a lot of change across the country in coming years, as retailing and shopping continues to transform, and that this will exhibit variability across the LAs. As the behaviours change so the structures underlying the sector are altering.



Posted in Closure, Consumer Change, Data, Employment, Local Authorities, Online Retailing, Places, Retail Change, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Statistics, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Retailers Urge Holyrood Policy Change to Stem Decline”

Under the headline “Retailers urge Holyrood policy change to stem decline”, Scotland on Sunday on the 11th September (article here) reported on a ‘call to arms’ from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) arguing for more support from the Scottish Government for retailers.  This is a version of a theme the SRC has been pursuing for some time – the cost of doing retail business and the fiscal drag on the sector – though in this case more on the imbalance of costs between physical and digital and the changing structure of the sector.  The SRC probably didn’t write the headline nor the opening paragraph claiming ‘a severe haemorrhaging of Scottish retail jobs and shops’ but the turns of phrase were eye-catching.

My curiosity was piqued as I did not immediately recognise the data source. I blame the recent warm weather in Scotland for distracting me from the late August publication of the Scottish Annual Business Statistics 2014 (yes 2014, so we are talking “recent” data here). Please take care if you download as it is 292 pages of numbers. This source provides a time series from 2008 – 2014 at SIC07 level, disaggregated in various ways.

The Scottish figures for the retail sector are as follows:

2008 2014 % change
Shops 24256 22612 -6.8
Employment (k) 260.3 250.3 -3.8
Turnover (£m) 23054 26875 16.6

Note that employment here is headcount (including self-employed, owners etc.) and not FTE or labour input.  There are also figures on GVA, but the article did not pick up on these, so I am ignoring them here.

These national figures got me thinking.  Their characterization in the newspaper article was as:

  • “Severe decline”, “haemorrhaging”
  • Worthy of policy to stem this decline
  • ‘Unfair’ (my word) given the growth of the internet.

But, is this what the data tells us?  Four main things emerged from my mental gymnastics on the numbers:

  1. The period covered is 2008-2014 i.e. effectively the period of the onset of the ‘great recession’. During this period Scotland lost 6.8% of its shops and 3.8% of its retail headcount.  But, and here’s the thing, during this same period sales on the internet as a proportion of all retail sales in Scotland rose from c3% to c11%.  Given this switching of behaviour should we not have seen a much bigger loss of stores and jobs?  Has physical retailing really been that badly hit?  Is this decline actually ‘severe’ or unexpected? We have in Scotland seemingly lost 10,000 jobs (actually headcount) in the six years here which cover the greatest recession we have ever seen and in internet retailing the fastest switch in consumer behaviour patterns ever known. This seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.
  2. Linked to this, if we spent the period from the 1970 to the 2010s rapidly expanding retail floor space, which we did, then should not the adjustment in this latter period given internet switching and the recession be more than we are seeing in these figures? In other ways is the characterization as a “haemorrhage” valid?
  3. Finally, I simply do not know how the internet is treated in these figures, if at all and could not find out in any of the 292 pages of the publication (I am happy to accept my eyes might have glazed over at some points and so I might have missed it, so please correct me if you can). The treatment of the internet worries me. If I buy a book online (heaven forfend), while I am in Newcastle, via say, the John Lewis website , but ask to have click and collect in the Stirling store, where is the sale logged? England, Scotland, Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Stirling? Have internet sales been captured  appropriately or at all  in these data?
  4. The data also says Scottish retailing has grown over this period as a proportion of UK retailing turnover from 7.1 to 7.7% which seems at odds with other sources, for example the Scottish Retail Sales Monitor published by the SRC.  However if true, has Scottish retailing done that badly and why therefore would we need a policy change?

These data are interesting if a little perplexing, and raise a few questions.  It is clear, as the SRC state in the article, that we are in a period of structural change.  As yet, we have not fully understood either its dimensions/impacts or how we embrace it correctly in tax and other (eg data) terms.  Our levers are mainly on the sectors/places under strain, and in that the SRC is surely correct as seen in the taxation and rates issues.  We have to consider continuing and accumulating stresses on the sector, and that these data say nothing about profit and there could be tipping points/cliffs ahead.  Retailing is challenged, and I am not sure this has fully worked through the system yet.

The data should give us pause for thought and then considered action.  But I don’t feel they are as dramatic as has been stated here – for example I don’t see -6.8%, -3.8% or even +16.6% as haemorrhaging.  Trying to stop the internet seems a futile endeavour and thus we are likely to see more closures and floor space reductions as well as sectoral shifts.  Where I do agree with the article and the SRC is that the current playing field is not level; the more interesting question is whether we wish it to be so?  Perhaps after all these data show a sector embracing technological change and working through it?

I will follow up this post with one looking at local authority data for retailing from this source.

Posted in BRC, Closure, Competition, Consumer Change, Costs, Data, Employment, Internet shopping, Online Retailing, Profits, Retail Change, Retailing, Scotland, Scottish Government, Scottish Retail Consortium, Shop Numbers, Statistics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Retailing’s Unacceptable Faces

Of course, the week I was away on annual leave (and if you love rain, then my home country Wales, had it in buckets) the two House of Commons Select Committee investigations into those captains of industry, Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley, or more accurately practices at ‘their’ companies (well, sort of) decided to publish their reports.  Acres of newsprint, hours of air and TV time have been devoted to them, not least as the spat between Frank Field and Philip Green exploded once more, when the former compared the latter to Robert Maxwell, ensuring yet more coverage.

The two Select Committee reports can be downloaded here (Sports Direct) and here (BHS) as well as via the Committees’ websites (Sports Direct; BHS)where much more evidence is provided, and many of the exchanges are documented.

Given this blog’s interest in retail and past views of the BHS collapse it seems appropriate to return to the reports, not in forensic detail, but rather as a snapshot of British retail capitalism.  Let’s start with parts of what I thought were good, concise summaries:

Sports Direct: “A spotlight has been shone on the working practices and business model of Sports Direct. What the spotlight revealed was extremely disturbing. Workers at Sports Direct were not being paid the national minimum wage, and were being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Some say they were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours. Serious health and safety breaches also seem to have occurred. For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct” (p3).

 BHS: “The evidence we have received over the course of this inquiry has at times resembled a circular firing squad. Witnesses appeared to harbour the misconception that they could be absolved from responsibility by blaming others. The worst example was Sir Philip Green, despite his protestations to the contrary. Sir Philip adopted a scattergun approach, liberally firing blame to all angles except his own, though he began his evidence by saying he would do the opposite. The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners. This is the unacceptable face of capitalism” (p55).

The Sports Direct report focuses on a range of practices which can be summarised as seeing ‘workers as commodities (p12) and, the distribution centre as ‘a workhouse not a warehouse’ (p8).  It zeroes in on the use of agencies and their use of contract workers often on very ‘unbalanced’ contracts.  That many of these workers are foreign and as they don’t have bank accounts have to use company pre-paid cards (p14) says a lot.  This is reminiscent of the worst ‘truck’ systems of the 19th century.

The report finds serious failings of corporate governance, management awareness and leadership.  It concludes (p26):

Sports Direct is the country’s largest sports retail outlet, but that size and success is founded on a business model that enables the majority of workers in both the warehouse at Shirebrook and at the shops around the UK to be treated without dignity or respect….Mr Ashley must be held accountable for some appalling working practices at both the Sports Direct shops and warehouses, either for not knowing about them, or for turning a blind eye to such practices in the interests of maximising the revenue of Sports Direct”.

The BHS report has had more coverage than the Sports Direct one and is more personal and extensive.  Philip Green gets the most criticism for looking after himself/family and not the business, extracting huge value but halving the assets and destroying corporate value.  He is accused of obfuscation, concealment, lack of transparency, starving the pension fund, and playing ‘both sides of the deal’ (p34).  Corporate advisors are castigated for their lend their name, take the money, pass the buck approach.  Lord Grabiner lent a ‘veneer of establishment credibility’ (p46) whilst Chappell and RAL showed an ‘outrageous lack of good corporate citizenship’ (p52), an ‘egregious example of individual greed’ (p53) and ‘had their hands in the till’ (p55).  The details in the report are devastating and jaw-dropping – the unacceptable faces of capitalism.

Yet, despite everything, it is perhaps worth pausing.  The final chapter in the BHS report states that the law and regulation, especially on private companies is inadequate and that there needs to be stronger and more proactive regulation on pensions.

We can decry (and I have previously) the behaviour in these cases.  We can rail against the ‘circular firing squad’ and the denial of responsibility.  We can bemoan what we have come to. But, and it is a big but, at this point neither Green nor Ashley has been charged with doing anything illegal (possibly leaving aside the minimum wage breach in the latter); this may come but it has not yet, and it may of course not.  The framework that allows them to operate in this morally dubious but potentially legal way has been (de)constructed by our lawmakers and Parliamentarians.

Pension problems have been with us for decades.  Working practices have been steadily deteriorating for at least the same length of time.  Yet in these areas we have continued to deregulate and turn blind eyes; governments of both colours are guilty.  When will there be action so that these gaps are filled?

Real people are damaged by this mentality of workers as commodities and companies as private piggy banks.  Deferred pay (pensions) are eroded or lost and the public purse has to pick up the pieces and pay the price.  Practices and behaviour such as those exposed in these two reports should never be allowed to happen again.  They are that devastating and important. Lawmakers and regulators also bear responsibility for what happened and the lack of action to remedy the frameworks.

Posted in Agencies, BHS, Employment, Employment practices, Governance, Pensions, Retail Failure, Retail leadership, Select Committees, Sports Direct, Store Closures | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

From the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres to the World Towns Summit

Downloadable versions of this post are available here (word) and here (pdf).

The attraction of many international delegates to the inaugural World Towns Summit in Edinburgh in June 2016 was eloquent testimony to the perception that Scotland has led the way in recent years in thinking about and producing action on towns and town centres.  That international bodies selected Scotland as the location and trusted us to deliver speaks volumes about our international reach.

At the Summit, and in the ongoing discussions since, there have been requests to understand what it is Scotland has set in motion.  The danger is that this gets bogged down in detail, so this short, personal, piece is my view of the last 5 years or so.  It is an insider’s commentary (I was on the National Review and am Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership), with all the faults that this can entail, but is intended to ‘join the dots’ at a high level.  Figure 1 provides a handy guide to these dots with the detail of the picture drawn available via the hyperlinks (are active in the word document).

Review Diagram

The onset of the ‘great recession’ in 2007-8 produced visible fault lines and scars across Scotland as elsewhere.  It heightened awareness of, and the urgency needed to tackle the changing nature of place and towns and our economic, social and cultural lives.  This is not to say that nothing was known or being done before this point, and indeed many organisations playing a vital role today were in operation then, or that the recession was the only problem.  But, responses in 2008-11 felt piecemeal and addressed symptoms not the cause.

In 2012, Nicola Sturgeon responded to the crisis in town centres by establishing a National Review of Town Centres, chaired by Malcolm Fraser the leading architect and urban thinker.  Rather than focusing on the symptom – empty shops and a declining ‘high street’ – this review tackled the cause – what are towns for and how do we think about and care about place?

Reporting in July 2013, the Expert Advisory Group focused on the underlying rationale for investing in, and re-energising towns.  The social and economic benefits for all sectors of the population, and the essentially sustainable attributes of towns provide the focus for the recommendations. Under an overarching ‘town centre first’ principle the Review lined up six core themes to be pursued (town centre living, digital towns, proactive planning, accessible services, local economic growth, creative and entrepreneurial places).

To a considerable extent there is not a lot new in these areas, but the Review integrated them and aligned them in such a way as to set up a blueprint for action.  To the Scottish Government’s credit they accepted the Review and in November 2013 published their response and call to action as the Town Centre Action Plan.

There are many implications of this at a detailed level, but in terms of policy implementation the Town Centre Action Plan, in my view, stimulated five lines of activities, sometimes producing new things, sometimes aligning existing approaches.

The first of these was a public commitment, pursued firmly by the Minister, Derek Mackay, with COSLA, to implement the Town Centre First principle, not only for retail but for public and other private investment where possible.  Whilst not formally or legally binding the public nature of the commitment has focused attention and actions to stop developments outside existing town centres, where alternatives are clearly available.

Secondly, and more privately, the Minister also pursued internal government alignments and actions in support of the Town Centre Action Plan.  By challenging government departments to pursue actions in support of the Plan, the Minister focused behaviours and thinking.

The various themes of the Town Centre Review and the Action Plan also received attention through a variety of demonstration projects, funded in an attempt to work out what could best deliver change against the themes.  In some cases capital investment was made, whereas in others it is pump priming and revenue coverage.  Not all demonstration projects neatly fit one theme, but the intention was to try things and assess impacts.

Fourthly, and in recognition of the fragmented landscape of bodies operating in the broad ‘towns space’, small-scale funding was provided to Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP).  The aim was to promote STP as the ‘go-to’ body for towns in Scotland, collating learning and activities from others, providing a single voice and amplifying the activities underway, whether undertaken by STP or by other bodies.

Finally, a Cross Party Group (CPG) on Towns and Town Centres was established, chaired by Margaret McCulloch, a Labour MSP.  Meeting quarterly the CPG provided a Parliamentary forum to debate progress and activities following the Town Centre Action Plan.  Attended at least once a year by the Minister, the CPG reinforced the cross party interest and support that towns and the Action Plan had governed.  It provided a more continuing forum than the annual Towns debate initiated in the main Parliamentary chamber by the Government.

One of the key tenets of the Action Plan was that there is no easy top-town solution to towns and that places are very distinct if not unique.  As such, towns need to be able to understand themselves by self-analysing their situation, assets and opportunities.  Allied to a focus on community and the need for community ownership of the issues and solutions, support was given to a series of tools and mechanisms to aid understanding and change.

A number of tools have emerged from this investment including the Towns Toolkit, The Place Standard, Understanding Scottish Places (USP) and various Town Audit approaches.  Consistent approaches and applications of these tools provides a focus for self-analysis of places and towns and provides a method of beginning conversations about change.  In many cases these conversations have been enabled via an enhanced programme of local charrettes, as a new engagement focus.

Mechanisms to enable change in some cases pre-dated the Action Plan, but received a new stimulus and focus from it.  Business Improvement Districts and Development Trusts are mechanisms that enable new management of assets and places and have expanded since the National Review.  More directly political, the community focus was legislated via the Community Empowerment Act which gives various rights to local communities and helps asset transfer and ownership for community and social good.  The rise in interest in social enterprise, crowd-funding and social investment schemes have assisted in this.

With all this activity and various towns across Scotland trying different things to meet their needs, there is a real question over the impact of the Town Centre Action Plan.  Recognising this, the Government produced, in November 2014 and November 2015 respectively, the Town Centre Action Plan One Year On and Two Years On.  These capture and describe much of what has been taking place generally and specifically through demonstration and other projects.  Each publication has been the subject of a parliamentary debate on the broad topic of towns.  A more formal and structured impact analysis of these activities is currently (summer/autumn 2016) underway within the Scottish Government.

Our towns and town centres have been steadily altered by decentralisation and changing economic, social and technological capabilities and behaviours.  This has been going on for at least 50 years and has culminated in our present situation.  Scotland is not unique in this.  Expecting radical transformation and reversal of these macro-trends in the short time since 2013 is clearly unrealistic.  But where Scotland is distinct is in having a coherent, aligned and formally recognised national plan for how to attempt to reverse the situation, by placing community at the heart of the process.  There remains much to be done but the World Towns Summit was recognition that the first steps have been made and potentially provide lessons for others.

All this effort has gone on in the knowledge that some macro-economic alterations might help the processes, but they have not yet been politically achievable.  Two particular examples are the self-imposed Scottish Government restrictions on non-domestic rates alterations to assist town centres and the (reserved powers) of setting different VAT rates on redevelopment and new build or spatial areas.  There are other levers which might become available to the Scottish Government, and as new post-Brexit and post-election thinking addresses issues of local and other income and taxation, other opportunities to support town centres may emerge.  We are at the start of a journey, with a lot to do, but at least in Scotland we have a road-map or a sat-nav.

Posted in Bids Scotland, Charrettes, Community, Cross Party Group, Development Trusts, Government, High Streets, Place Standard, Places, Planning, Policy, Proactive Planning, Regeneration, Retail Change, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, USP, World Towns Framework, WTLS16 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments