Retail Sales in Great Britain, January 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics produced the monthly retail sales figures for Great Britain for January 2021.  This is the first full month of data since lockdown was reintroduced before and around Christmas.

The press headlines in some cases were predictably apocalyptic, and highly unenlightening.  There is no doubt that parts of retailing are really struggling, but others are not, reflecting the current changed reality of consumer behaviour.  As I have written before, the headlines irritate me because they ignore the context to a major degree.  In a lockdown where some shops can not open, surely you expect retail sales to be down, and by quite a lot.  Indeed one could argue given the state of the economy and personal finances for many, they have been more resilient than anticipated (see first figure above).

None of that though can mask the pain and the problems for retailers (and especially their employees) forced to be closed and likely to be closed for some time yet.

We can see the impact of this in these ONS figures.  Non-food stores saw sales almost a quarter down between January and the previous month (December including Christmas).  The impact is felt across the non-food sectors but the data suggests it was not as extreme as in the first lockdown last April.  This is ascribed to stronger online and click and collect provision, as capacity has been built and learning implemented in the last 10 months.

Food retailing continued to do well, growing in comparison to December.  Some of this remains hospitality and eating out diversion. Supermarkets also gained clothing sales.

The switch to online is also notable in the figure above.  And, as the figure below shows, the proportion of retail sales online hit a record 35.2% in January 2021.  The figure clearly shows the switch at the start of the pandemic into online, and the way in which food retailing reacted (now at a record 12.2% in food as well).

The questions arising from these data are profound for retailing:

  • Does the online food penetration pattern imply a sustained switch of behaviours? Capacity has been built and users are used to systems, so is this level here to say or likely to grow? Or if it gets unused what will that say for the future of online food retailing?
  • Linked to this, does routine food sales via this channel imply that better local and convenience opportunities will also be sustained?  Or will these be hit more as hospitality etc. opens up?
  • The fluctuations of the non-food online penetration (linked to lockdowns) implies a more necessity driven behaviour, so does this suggest that as stores open up, so sales patterns will revert to physical stores, and online penetration here will fall?
  • And overall, is online at 35.2% where this will end up, or will as before in the pandemic the penetration drop back a bit?

This will obviously unfold as we come out of lockdown, and if we can sustain the opening up of shops, then I think we will see a renaissance of physical retailing. The questions above are a little skewed to the macro and the larger retailers perhaps, and there is an interesting undercurrent of independent and local shop openings and attraction that will need to be considered further. We have all missed being out and about and socialising, and I suspect many will want to make up for lost time in their local and perhaps other centres, and to see something different to their current online and restricted shop offers.

Posted in Christmas, Click and Collect, Clothing, Consumer Change, Convenience stores, Covid19, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Non-Essential Retailing, Non-food retailing, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Supermarket, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Screen Time? Cinemas and Town Centres

One of the things that people have missed though the pandemic is the ability to go to a cinema and see a film. This is a social as well as an artistic activity, whihc raises questions about the types and locations of cinemas. Given they are a customer draw and can be an asset and attractor for a place and for people, there is considerable interest in cinemas and town centres.

With the announcement last week of the The Arc’s plans for a cinema in Ayr, I thought it might be interesting to get some reflections on cinemas and town centres in Scotland. I therefore asked Rob Arthur, who is a Director at The Big Picture (Cinema Advisers) Ltd and has over 30 years of experience of working in cinema globally to provide some comments. His thoughts are below.

“Scotland has a vibrant, successful, and diverse cinema sector which has seen a steady period of growth from the very first multiplex location constructed at Clydebank in 1988 through to the latest opening of the Highland Cinema in Fort William in late 2020. The development of digital, 3D and alternative content (opera, ballet, sports, entertainment shows, gaming) has supported this growth.

Total Scottish box office in 2019 was £100m. 33 cinemas in Scotland are operated by the major chains – Cineworld, Odeon, Vue, Showcase, Empire and Everyman. The majors concentrate their efforts on the main cities and large population densities, but do not venture outwards to expand and extend cinema-going to smaller and less densely populated areas of the country. The other 74 venues are independent or arthouse from the Mareel in Shetland to the newly upgraded Picture House in Campbeltown. These venues play a critical part in the cultural and social networking across the country in any given year.

There is a strong commitment to the future of the industry from all key stakeholders – investors, landlords, developers, producers, operators, and key suppliers – to enable future openings that includes a new Vue Cinema at Glasgow’s St Enoch Centre and an Everyman boutique offer at the St James Quarter in Edinburgh. Plans are underway for new further developments in Aberdeen, Cumbernauld, Dumfries, Montrose, Paisley, and The Arc’s newly announced plans for Ayr.

Residents of towns and cities across Scotland (and across the world) generally put cinemas at the top or near the top of their wish list of leisure facilities that they would like to have located in their area. Reasons for this include:  

  • Cinemas act as a catalyst for the re-purposing and regeneration of a town centre and are generally welcomed by those who have stayed in an area for many years and those who are recent or new arrivals. 
  • The largest entertainment companies globally, including Disney, Universal, Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros; the National Theatre, and the Royal Opera House provide substantial marketing support on an on-going basis to promote their content at local venues, making them relevant all year round.
  • Cinemas offer an entertainment and multi-arts venue with an ever-broadening offer, driven by the developments in technology, flexible distribution, new types of content and local demand for all ages and demographics.
  • Flexibility to programme a Kid’s Club screening; family afternoon visits on a rainy day; a live theatre screening; the latest blockbusters with friends; weekend date nights followed by a meal at a local restaurant; the hosting of a business conference.
  • Cinemas are welcoming places, and they have a significant positive economic and social impact, particularly in the post work 6pm – 9pm time period throughout the year as a place of entertainment.
  • In a survey conducted at Silverburn Shopping Centre and replicated elsewhere, the addition of a cinema increased footfall by 8% and food and drinks sales by over 11%.
  • Innovation has provided an opportunity to deliver greater customer choice which is in turn driving greater consumer demand. With the flexibility and quality of the latest sound and vision technology, cinemas can range in size from 4,000 sqft to 100,000 sqft of NLA.

A cinema venue will give local people the opportunity to see a film; provide employment in a key industry sector; and enable staff to reach out into the community to work on projects and initiatives that will ensure that the venue becomes a Cultural and Social Hub in the Town Centre. 

In Summary, a cinema venue located in a Town Centre will:

  • Be open for business every day and into the 6pm – 9pm dormant period and programme films at times that are convenient to all parts of the community.
  • Become the meeting place for a film, live event, coffee or to go on to having a meal at a local restaurant.
  • Create local jobs directly and indirectly (local restaurants and shops) which will have an economic and social impact all year round.”
The Birks Cinema Cafe Bar, Aberfeldy (land and buildings purchased in part with a grant of £320,000 from the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Regeneration Fund in 2009). Full history here.
Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Cinemas, Consumers, Creative Places, High Streets, Regeneration, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Social value, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stopping Doing Harm to our Town Centres

The Town Centre Action Plan Report (A New Future for Scotland’s Towns) has three types of recommendations.  Two of these are reasonably uncontroversial – planning, engaging more local people property and data on towns on the one hand and funding investment in towns and aligning programmes to enhance local impact and capacity on the other.

The third set of recommendations is perhaps another kettle of fish though.  It recommends we stop doing harm to our town centres.  Now I don’t think that should be controversial. But it is, because it challenges existing operations and funding, often allied to powerful vested interests.  And longer term it challenges the ways some (many?) of us live and behave; mainly those who can afford choices.

Our recommendations stem from at least four inter-linked positions:

  • Asking councils to forego income (e.g. rates relief, free town centre parking) is neither a sensible  nor sustainable way forward – it is asking for short term sticking plasters from austerity-hit and income- poor authorities
  • We can’t go on allowing activities and companies to flourish beyond the tax regime if we want to have the social goods to meet all our societal needs.  Taxation has to reflect activity.

Being positive about town centres and suggesting we stop rewarding those that damage them seems an obvious step.  We need to get beyond the whether and focus on the how.  This is not an either/or, it is about basic fairness for people, but we also need basic fairness for businesses (large and small, corporate, cooperative, independent) and organisations (third sector, community, development trusts etc) as well.

I wrote a longer piece on these issues a week or so ago, some of which was used in a recent Herald article. I post what was written here in case anyone is interested:

“The time has come to put our town centres first. And fast. We simply cannot continue with the cards stacked against them as they are. It’s abundantly clear that the world in which we find ourselves compels meaningful – sometimes difficult – action to deliver radical change.

When it comes to Scotland’s towns and town centres, that means righting some wrongs and creating a fairer playing field on which town centres have the best opportunities to not just survive, but to thrive; an environment where it is cheaper and more attractive to invest in them, for the good of people, planet and the economy.

We need to create communities which are cleaner, greener and more equitable. To achieve that, governments (local and national) need to tackle the systematic inequalities which are holding back our town centres and focus on making them deliver.

The Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, which I chaired, this week published its recommendations on how Scotland’s town centres can become stronger and more sustainable, helping to meet our climate change targets. A major focus of the recommendations is to stop supporting activities which damage town centres. We suggest a number of approaches

One urges a five-year moratorium on out-of-town developments. Contentious? Perhaps. But 60 years of disaggregation in development needs to be reversed.

This decentralisation – driven by car use – has resulted in a hollowing out of activities from town centres. It’s led to the construction of off-centre mono-format developments, and this goes well beyond retailing, which has left local services being insufficient to meet local needs – or inaccessible without a car.

It has resulted in less active travel and created issues around the sustainability of public transport. It does nothing to tackle climate change and impacts negatively on our society too.

Some might view this too blunt an approach. Yet I believe it’s necessary as a starting point. Out-of-town needs to be the exception rather than the rule.

Developments of all kinds must be focused on town centres. That means the incentives to invest must be better, with our taxes reflecting our ambitions and activities. Town centres need to be cheaper places to turn to – and they should be easier to develop and operate in, including by community and third sector organisations, and for a diversity of activities and functions.

It’s not right that there are incentives for developing out of town which do not exist in town centres. I am clear in my view that Non-Domestic Rates need overhauled and substantially replaced. Rates need to be reduced for town centres and increased elsewhere. This would help bring more businesses and people into our towns, reducing inequality of access. It needs to be cheaper to rebuild and renovate our heritage in town centers than eat up greenfield and other land.

Taxes generally need reformed. We make clear that taxation needs to reflect the society we are now and not what we were. Various models of digital tax must be explored as a matter of urgency, ideally linked to reducing carbon emissions.  We all use social goods such as the NHS; we all need to pay towards it. Because some companies are not doing anything wrong by not contributing currently, that does not make it right.

We, of course, need to make it easier to get into towns, which is why I hope that an out-of-town car parking space levy would begin to help address that. This would be an income stream for enhancing public transport and other forms of active travel so that they can be developed to improve town centre access.

Make no mistake, the task of reinventing and rebuilding town centres is not easy – and may not be as quick as we would like – but we must ignite that debate, begin the process of change and then accelerate it. To achieve that we first need to acknowledge what’s broken and take steps to put it right – however challenging that may be. The focus which we advocate, and its emphasis on local, community, fairness, wellbeing, inclusion and equality, is in the national interest.”

Posted in Climate Emergency, Community, Government, High Streets, Housing, Internet, Local Authorities, Offices, Out of Town, Places, Property, Public Policy, Rates, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Social Renewal, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Webinar: “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”

The Town Centre Action Plan Review was published on the 3rd February. On the 18th February (1430-1530), Scotland’s Towns Partnership are holding a webinar launching the Review. There may be few spaces left (but capacity is close to being reached) and you can register to attend on the STP website.

I am using a slide deck. I tend to speak to slides and off the cuff rather than to a scripted speech. I have though recorded a 10 minute trial run through of the presentation and have edited the transcript, which forms the text below. I am not likely to say EXACTLY the same things in the webinar, but the transcript and text below provides a flavour of what I might say. Both slides and transcript can be downloaded below.

“In July 2020 I was asked by Aileen Campbell, Cabinet Secretary to chair a Town Centre Action Plan Review Group. We’ve now produced the final report from that review group entitled A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres.

The review of the Town Centre Action Plan was asked to do a number of things. We were asked to review progress and scope since the development of the Town Centre Action Plan and to produce a revised vision for towns. That vision needed to meet the climate change ambitions and to develop healthier, vibrant, greener town centres. The aim was to produce a vision, but also how we might implement that vision.

Over the last decade, Scotland has led the way in terms of the United Kingdom and Ireland in the way it looked at town centres. The National Review of Town Centres, led by Malcolm Fraser in 201/ 13 was a major step forward. And from that, the Town Centre Action Plan was developed and then implemented.

COSLA and the Scottish Government produced the town centre first agreement, which developed additionally into the place principle and recently the place based investment programme.

So Scotland has a very sound basis on which to look at how it’s dealing with towns.

But as ever, there are many things that can be done better. Over that last decade, the country has rather enhanced ambitions. We’ve developed a much stronger framework around community empowerment. The government has indicated the response it needs for the climate emergency and has developed a series of national outcomes and tied those to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A focus on wellbeing and inequalities and now on social renewal have also been hallmarks of the way in which the last decade has changed.

So it’s timely that we’re moving forward the Town Centre Action Plan.

That would have been true in any case, but it’s been further made a priority by the rapid spread of Covid 19 over 2020 in Scotland which has exacerbated existing inequalities, and provided some new ones as well. But within that, we’ve also seen people emphasise the value of local, neighbourhood and community and those are positive things. We’ve also exposed, in some cases, local supply chains and a lack of local resilience. And in responding to those challenges, local governments and others have produced new, simpler forms of working together.

So there are lessons we can take from the way in which we responded to the pandemic and the things that the pandemic exposed in terms of our communities and towns.

In looking at the oral and written evidence that we received and, public surveys, and the previous work that’s been carried out, we decided to adopt a vision. Towns and town centres are for the well-being of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone, and everyone has a role to play in making our towns and town centres successful.

This reflects the change in terms of community and climate, but also that we have to work in partnership together, if we’re going to make our towns and town centres succeed.

Whilst we have a sound basis on which to build, there is still an opportunity to strengthen the existing national policy context. However, even if we strengthen everything, it’s very clear that many of the activities that are carried out cause harm to our town centres and there is often a financial and other benefit to those activities. And that’s something we probably need to stop doing. Thirdly, we’ve done a number of pilots and other demonstration projects at the local level, and there’s been many excellent activities that have occurred in towns and town centres. We can extend those and extend our approaches and accelerate town centre renewal.

So we developed three types of recommendations.

Recommendation one is to strengthen the formal positioning of towns and town centres in national planning. That would include a requirement to produce town and town centre plans and to have those co-produced with communities, involving everyone in the community in looking at their place and the uniqueness of their place. We need to enhance data collection use at the town and town centre level. We’ve made a good start to that, but there’s so much more that could be done both in quantitative data but also the lived experiences of people about their towns and town centres.

Secondly, we need to look at the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that those ambitions (wellbeing, the economy in climate outcomes, fairness and equality) are at the heart of those systems. Currently, in many ways, we tend to reward activities that damage our town centres. We need now to really reverse that and level the playing field.

There are a range of suggestions here. They require more emphasis and a lot more effort to think through. But we need very seriously to address these issues. This will include amendments to the non-domestic rates, looking at the balance between in town and out of town developments, and in terms of the costs of reusing buildings as opposed to new development. Recognising the shift in terms of many activities to digital, we need to think about how tax can reflect the new economy and therefore look at digital tax.

It would be appropriate if we’re thinking about climate to introduce a new out of town car parking space levy. And we’re not talking just about retailing her, but a range of out of town uses. We need to emphasise the way in which active travel and other benefits can be delivered on the other hand.

Over a period of at least five years, we probably need to introduce a moratorium on out of town development and further focus developments within town centres.

Our third recommendation is that we need to expand and align funding for towns, town centres and projects.

We have an overall request that the Scottish government continues to expand and further align the funding available. The funding for town centre activities has to be substantial, has to be multi-year, and it needs to cover both revenue and capital spend. There’s been a very good start in terms of substantial sums of money and for guarantees over a period of time. But we also need to do more work about the balance of revenue and capital so we don’t just transfer assets and buy buildings. We know how to run them and can get community groups, development trusts and others much more closely involved.

We need to make these projects focussed around particular themes. Some of these were present in the Town Centre Action Plan from 2013, but others can be developed further.

We need to expand town centre living so we have a range of different types of occupier and uses within town centres that will bring more life and footfall into the town.

We need to emphasise the digital skills and uses that can be in towns and we need to make sure businesses and enterprises and the people within towns are skilled up to use the digital skills that we need, for the future economy. We should focus very much on enterprise in communities, and think about a strategic acquisition fund to alter the ownership, development and uses in town, particularly around local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economy. This is building very much on the ideas behind community wealth building.

And then we need to think about how we respond to climate change within town centres. We should focus on projects that can build out of existing programmes in climate action towns, think about microgeneration of energy, roof retrofitting of town centre buildings, about green jobs, alter space allowances within town centres for active travel, how pedestrians move around, and the green spaces and social settings that we have, so towns are more pleasant places, but also more resilient places. Generally, socially and also in terms of climate change, much of that also can be thought about in terms of the 20 minute neighbourhood concept.

To conclude, the current narrative that we see about town centres has often been a bit negative about the decline or the death of the town centre. That’s very much overstated. One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how people want to be together, and value the social element of the ways in which we live our lives.

Decline is clearly not inevitable. We’ve encouraged it. We can now reverse it.

Towns can and should be the heart of the community, delivering for people, the planet and the economy. We need to make this happen. We believe that the recommendations, if implemented, can really help to do this.

There’s far more information on the review, detail about the way in which we got to these recommendations and the detail behind them in the final report, which can be downloaded from the Scottish Government website, on and on this blog. There’s also more information on on the oral and written evidence and the background material.”

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Barclay Review, Car Parking, Climate Emergency, Community, Community Assets, Community Ownership, Creative Places, Government, High Streets, Leadership, Legislation, Local Authorities, Localisation, Places, Public Policy, Public Realm, Rates, Regeneration, Regulation, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Small Towns, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Streets, Streetscapes, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places, University of Stirling, USP | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres – (1) Introduction to our Report

Full Report can be downloaded here

This is the first of three linked posts on the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group Report (an introduction, summary of the review approach, recommendations). The full report and details of the Review Group, evidence submitted and heard and background and other material can be found at

In July 2020, I was asked by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Communities, Aileen Campbell MSP to Chair a Review Group considering the Town Centre Action Plan and activities to support towns since 2013. The background to the Review, as well as the remit, have been covered previously in this blog. The Group was asked specifically to consider how Scotland’s towns could be made greener, healthier, more equitable and inclusive places.

In publishing the Review Group’s Report today, a number of thanks are in order : to the Review Group members for their time, input and energy; all the individuals and organisations who provided background material and written and oral evidence; and the support team and secretariat for keeping this focused and on schedule.

I fully appreciate that not all those who inputted will necessarily recognise their contributions and some will feel either their interests have not been taken into account or that we have not gone far enough to meet their desires. But in coming to our recommendations we were guided by the national need (as articulated in the National Outcomes) and by the task we were set by the Cabinet Secretary.

Towns are beginning to get the focus that require. Commitments to new approaches (The Place Principle, Community Wealth Building, 20 minute Neighbourhoods) and the Place Based Investment Programme provide a different and supportive context. We have the strong background and development since 2013 on which to build as well. We need though, and can, strengthen further the policy background and support for towns, and this is the first of our recommendations.

Even with this though, there is an inherent problem. We could spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, supporting town centres (and the “high street”). Yet, our system is often biased towards out-of-town and away from town centre activities, often reinforcing inequalities and emphasising private transport. If we are serious about supporting town centres to meet their potential and the national need, then these anomalies must be tackled. We need to make Town Centre First work if we are to change the future to be greener, healthier and more equitable and inclusive. Our second recommendation is therefore a number of actions to rebalance the playing field and to support town centres and withdraw active support for out of town activities. These are not easy issues and are arguably the more controversial aspects of our report (revised rates system, VAT revisions, digital tax, out-of-town car parking space levy, moratorium on out-of-town development). These are difficult issues, but they are the key to addressing the problem, and just because they are difficult does not mean that they can be ignored or postponed if our motivation is to truly turn around our town centres.

Then, thirdly, we need further and local initiatives to deliver the changes required from the local ground up. New approaches to town living, digital skills and use in towns, enterprising communities and climate change response in towns are needed urgently. We know some of things that work, but there are so many avenues that can be explored further locally, to meet local circumstances and to involve and engage the local community from the outset. These initiatives will help us focus on meeting disadvantage, reducing inequality and building locally sustainable and resilient economies and societies, including through strengthened local, community and co-operative enterprises. Much of this can align with initiatives on the environment, well-being, sustainability and new jobs.

The best of our towns and town centres provide a sustainable local economy and society with diverse and mixed uses attracting and meeting the needs and desires of their local communities. They are places that enhance a sense of community, identity and engagement and include and reflect all members of society. They are so much more than a focus for retailing, as important as that can be.

Towns and town centres can deliver many of the ambitions for Scotland and its people.  They can only do this however if they focus around the specific needs of their local communities and ensure all community voices are engaged in developments.  Town centres can be places we can be proud of and which provide social, economic, cultural, creative, environmental, entrepreneurial and local opportunities for all citizens.  This can be done, but we need to prioritise, support and actively rethink what we want in our town centres and show how this removes inequalities of place and identity and enhances the wellbeing of all those that live in and use them.  We believe our recommendations, if adopted, will help on this journey and will result in greener, healthier, fairer and more successful town centres.

Associated posts: (2) Summary of the review approach and (3) Recommendations

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Community, Community Assets, Government, High Streets, Places, Public Policy, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres – (2) Summary of our Approach

Full Report can be downloaded here

This is the second of three linked posts on the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group Report (an introduction, summary of the review approach, recommendations). The full report and details of the Review Group, evidence submitted and heard and background and other material can be found at

The 2013 Town Centre Action Plan was the Scottish Government’s response to the National Review of Town Centres.  The Town Centre Action Plan emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted Town Centre First and the use of data on towns across Scotland. Six themes (town centre living, accessible public services, proactive planning, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies) focus activities to improve town centres.

The subsequent seven years have seen changes in the national ambitions and context. The development of the National Outcomes and their linkage to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have positioned Scotland as focusing on wellbeing, inclusive development, climate emergency responses and health and inequalities. Place and town centres have been identified as components of solutions to some of these issues and Town Centre First, the Place Principle and other place and planning changes have promoted this approach.

There has been progress, particularly at the policy and the local level. There has however remained a sense that more can be done to enhance town centres given their scope to meet our societal objectives. Inequalities amongst communities and places remain stubbornly persistent. Town centres have continued to have a fight for their future. Then came Covid-19, which altered the world as we knew it and amplified existing, and produced further, inequalities.

In July 2020 therefore the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, MSP set up a Review Group, chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks at the University of Stirling to review the Town Centre Action Plan and to consider how we can make our towns and town centres greener, healthier and more equitable and inclusive places and to come forward with a revised plan for action for towns and town centres. The Group was also asked to look at the emerging concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

Over 6 months the Review Group has taken written and oral evidence, considered results from a public survey and previous research on towns and town centres across the UK. It has debated what the role of town centres can and should be across Scotland. In reaching its conclusions we note that the route-map set down in the Town Centre Action Plan is widely admired and has been followed in part by other governments; the basis of the approach remains sound. Progress however needs to be more consistent and rapid.

The Review Group adopted a vision for towns and town centres: “Towns and town centres are for the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centre successful”. Towns and town centres are very well placed to deliver on the national ambitions. They are the heart of communities can provide shared and equitable access to products and services, have an ability to focus sustainable and local economic and social activity and can deliver enhanced wellbeing through a positive sense of place, history, community and environment.

The best of our town centres and our most successful towns offer a sustainable, local economy and society with diverse and mixed uses attracting and meeting the needs and desires of their local communities. They are centres that enhance a sense of community, place, identity and engagement and that advance equality by enabling all members of society to participate fully.

Currently however some towns and town centres are not meeting these ideals and ambitions. They can be perceived as disappointing by many residents and visitors with a lack of sense of place or difference and little by the way of local presence or engagement. Some town centres may be perceived as excluding particular communities or groups – for example,  if there are concerns about safety at particular times, where using the town centre is considered expensive compared to other options or where it is not as accessible as it should be. There are many town centres that do a good job, but we need to improve overall and especially where local needs are not being met.

There are a number of reasons behind the current situation. Sixty years of decentralisation (development away from town centres) and disaggregation (separation of uses) has removed many activities and assets and reduced reasons to visit and dwell. The operating costs in town centres are higher than in competing channels such as out-of-town sites and the internet. The lack of organisational and ownership differentiation means that local stake-holding can be limited. Town centres are often choked by an over-reliance on car-borne traffic and an under-emphasis on people access and movement.

We can point though to examples where the town centre has become the focus of attention whether by local authorities, community groups or the third sector. Place-based investment is being prioritised, often where local authorities have adopted Town Centre First and placed an emphasis on their town centres. The Place Principle and town centre planning and visioning has been shown to help generate investment and build a sense of place. Concepts such as Community Wealth Building including community asset ownership are gaining ground. This local engagement and focus on the community as the driver of change is really important. It also reflects that whilst general conditions can be set nationally to aid town centres, so much has to be done at the local level. Towns and town centres are unique places and have their individual specific localities and communities to consider. Rural and island located towns and town centres are distinct from towns in the heart of dense urban conurbations, such as across the Central Belt. At a detailed level, what works for one town centre, and for one community, does not necessarily work for another.

Associated posts: (1) Introduction to our Report and (3) Recommendations

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Community, Government, Local Authorities, Places, Planning, Public Policy, Rates, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A New Future for Scotland’s Towns – (3) Recommendations

Full report can be downloaded here

This is the third of three linked posts on the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group Report (an introduction, summary of the review approach, recommendations). The full report and details of the Review Group, evidence submitted and heard and background and other material can be found at

In arriving at our recommendations therefore the Review Group has attempted to build on the good progress made and the clear path set out in 2013. We have tried to reflect the changed context and the new national ambitions especially in the areas of environment and climate. We welcome and recognise significant progress across Scottish Government in developing and aligning policies that assist communities and town centres and focus on inclusivity and equalities and have attempted to align with these.

We have made three types of recommendations.

First, we have a set of proposals about strengthening the role of town centres in planning and the role of communities in shaping their town and town centre. This set of proposals is primarily for the planning profession at national, regional, local and community levels. The aim is to strengthen the position of town centres overall and ensure a local embeddedness and focus on working with all of the local community. We need to enable and ensure a more equality-focused participative approach to engaging all parts of our communities, and not just the same voices. This includes, for example, a focus on local accessibility to services, and concepts including 20-minute neighbourhoods, making sure older and disabled people can benefit fully. Some of these recommendations can be taken forward as National Planning Framework 4 is developed further in 2021; others can be adopted immediately. A refocus and reemphasis on Town Centre First would be beneficial.

Recommendation 1: Strengthen the formal positioning of towns and town centres in National Planning including requirements to produce town and town centre plans, co-produced with communities and enhance data collection and use at the town and town centre level

  • Towns and town centres to be included and prioritised in National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4)
  • Town Centre Plans need to be developed and implemented with the local community and with a focus and commitment on the wellbeing of people, the planet and the economy
  • Develop a revised and enhanced focus on measurement and data for towns and town centres

Secondly, we have identified and seek to tackle what is an unfair playing field, stacked against town centres. Taxation needs to reflect activities or it becomes unsustainable. We make recommendations for consideration mainly in the area of rates and taxation to make it more attractive to operate in town centres and less attractive to operate out-of-town. This will help address equitable access to various public and commercial services. We suggest rebalancing taxation to better encompass and reflect the rapid rise of online activities. We seek to tackle the environmentally unfriendly nature of much of our current activity and the need to make substantial changes in operations and behaviour to meet our climate targets. These suggestions could usefully be considered in detail in 2021 by the Scottish Land Commission’s expert group on Land and Property Tax, though the proposal for a moratorium fits more closely with the ongoing NPF4 development.

Recommendation 2: Scottish Government should review the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that wellbeing, economy and climate outcomes, fairness and equality are at their heart.Potential suggestions for actions include

  • Amendments to Non Domestic Rates (NDR)
  • Amendments to VAT
  • Introduce a digital tax
  • Introduce an Out-of-Town Car Parking Space Levy
  • Introduce a Moratorium on Out-Of-Town Development

Thirdly we build on the strong basis of the original Town Centre Action Plan and its emphasis on projects and partnerships. We reflect that we need to accelerate these, sometimes by incentivisation, and to better exchange the knowledge and learning from them. We focus on pre-existing themes from the Town Centre Action Plan in terms of town centre living, digital development and enterprising communities (and inducing vibrant local economies). We add to this with a set of proposals based around climate change response. In all these areas we recognise the progress made, the partnerships currently developed, the steps being taken by Scottish Government, as well as future ambitions. These recommendations thus link directly to the Place Based Investment Programme, Community Wealth Building, 20-minute Neighbourhoods and Active Travel. We recognise the opportunity to develop and focus such projects, partnerships and investments with the local community to improve equality and access for all groups across society.

Recommendation 3: Expanded and Aligned Funding of Demonstration Projects in Towns and Town Centres.

We have an overall request that the Scottish Government continues to seek to expand and ensure further alignment of the funding available. Funding for town centre activities has to be substantial, multi-year and cover revenue and capital spend. We recommend that projects should be focused around themes of

  • Town Centre Living Expansion – housing sector incentivisation in town centres
  • Digital Skills and Use in Towns – skills development for businesses and enterprises and extended uses of various technologies to understand and change behaviours in town centres
  • Enterprising Communities – Strategic Acquisition Fund to later ownership, development and use patterns in town centres to encourage local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economies
  • Climate Change Response – building on existing programmes in Climate Action Towns, micro-generation, retro-fitting of town centres buildings and the alteration of space in town centres for active travel, pedestrian movement, green space and social settings, with a view to enhancing the resilience of town centres against climate change.

Towns and town centres can deliver many of the ambitions for Scotland and its people. They can only do this however if they focus around the specific needs of their local communities and ensure all community voices are engaged in developments. Town centres can be places we can be proud of and which provide social, economic, cultural, creative, environmental, entrepreneurial and local opportunities for all citizens. This can be done, but we need to prioritise, support and actively rethink what we want in our town centres and show how this removes inequalities of place and identity and enhances the wellbeing of all those that live in and use them. We believe our recommendations, if adopted, will help on this journey and will result in greener, healthier and fairer town centres.

Associated posts: (1) Introduction to our Report and (2) Summary of the Review approach

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Citizens, Community, Community Assets, Community Development, Community Ownership, Creative Places, Development Trusts, Entrepreneurship, Governance, Government, High Streets, Housing, Independents, Internet, Leadership, Local Authorities, Local Retailers, Places, Proactive Planning, Rates, Regeneration, Retail Policy, Retailing, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Reclaim the High Street – Midsteeple Quarter, Dumfries Crowdfunder

Community ownership of assets breathing new life into centres across Scotland has been a theme, and a success of recent years. There is still much more to be done, and it needs to be made easier and simpler, but we are, I believe on the right path. But this is not cheap and often community organisations and volunteers struggle to find the money needed to purchase and then to run these assets for the community.

One of these success stories that is held up as showing the way forward is Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries. It is often seen as pioneering and a model to emulate across Scotland. The evidence sessions for the Town Centre Action Plan Review heard of the energy and life that the Midsteeple Quarter project has successfully brought to Dumfries, though we also heard that it has not always been a smooth straight path, partly due to its ambition and innovation.

If you don’t know about Midsteeple Quarter and their approach then there is a short Carnegie Trust Case Study available, and the Midsteeple Quarter website tells their story through words and videos. They also featured in the December 2020 edition of Scottish Planner, which concentrated on ideas for the future of town and city centres. The approach in part has been to purchase and repurpose high street buildings to develop a new heart for Dumfries based around local asset owning and local resilience.

Well, Midsteeple Quarter want to buy some more buildings and need some help in doing this. I had become aware of their new ambitions and need early last week, but then on Friday, Scott Mackay, the Manager of Midsteeple Quarter got in touch directly to tell me about what they were trying to do in this new phase.

And so I thought I would turn this post over to him and what follows is a brief summary from Scott – more details are available on their website:

“Midsteeple Quarter is a community benefit society founded in 2017 set up and run by the people of Dumfries.  Our aim is to breathe new life into Dumfries town centre. We are doing this by bringing underused High Street properties under community control and refurbishing these as a new neighbourhood to create a thriving new heart for Dumfries built on principles of local prosperity and well-being.  MSQ already own three buildings, Nos. 113-115, 117 and 135-139, renamed The Smithy, The Press and The Oven.

The Covid pandemic has intensified the pressures on High Streets around the country with stores closing practically every week – this situation amplifies the need for a fresh approach, and we are (for once!) fortunate in Dumfries to be ahead of the curve by having the Midsteeple Quarter vision in place and underway. The pandemic is also encouraging previously reluctant owners to sell their properties and part of the recovery from Covid must be the re-use of vacant retail spaces for new local businesses and social enterprises to start up.

Essentially, we are in the process of redeveloping the three buildings we own already and have already raised c.£3m towards our Phase One redevelopment (from RCGF, SOSE, etc). In the meantime, we have negotiated the exclusive off-market purchase of the 3 remaining long term empty buildings in the Midsteeple Quarter core of the high street at a highly reduced value (all owners are taking a significant financial hit). The combination of this opportunity together with a Scottish Land Fund grant (must be spent by March 31 2021) towards part of the purchases, creates an immediate need for additional funds to complete the deals.

We are therefore reaching out for support to purchase the remaining three empty buildings within the Midsteeple Quarter – Nos.109, 111 and 121 High Street.  Our target is to raise £450,000 which will enable us to buy all three buildings and make them usable again by making immediate repairs and covering initial costs such as buildings insurance.

To do this Midsteeple Quarter have launched a Crowdfunder – details of which can be accessed here. This is an ambitious target in a short time scale. However, every penny donated will count as even if we don’t meet the total, any money raised will enable us to purchase one or two of the buildings immediately.”

Please consider helping them, both for Dumfries, but also as another pioneering step showing locally owned assets driving recovery in towns across Scotland.

Donate HERE
Posted in Carnegie UK Trust, Community, Community Assets, Community Ownership, Development Trusts, Dumfries, Local Authorities, Midsteeple Quarter, Places, Regeneration, Reinvention, Resilience, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Planner, Small Shops, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“If Not Now, When?” – the Social Renewal Advisory Board Report

Published January 2021 – available here

The last ten month have been the strangest time; as we all recognise.  Our experiences though have not all been the same.  I am one of the fortunate ones; I can work from home and had a large garden to keep me occupied over the summer.  I’ve missed some freedoms and experiences, but as a consequence have not spent as much money.

Others have been no where as fortunate and many have been very adversely affected by the circumstances they were, and are, in.  Existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and new inequalities have been created.  Women, single parent families, front-line workers, ethnic minorities, refugees and disabled people are amongst those who have often suffered badly.  Disadvantage was already polarised in society and has been reinforced, most obviously, and tragically, in the deaths and the case numbers.

The response in many communities has been phenomenal and volunteering and support networks have stepped in to fill the all too many gaps. Local authorities, third sector and others have provided a rapid local support lifeline (term used advisedly).

This stands in contrast to some of the negative stories of recent weeks.  The rise in gender and child violence in lockdown.  The increase in hate and race crime.  The refusal to recognise the need for financial lifelines (decency) for so many, as in the Universal Credit debate. The penny-pinching approach towards so many things by the UK Government, yet the contrast of that with the companies it has employed (normally without tenders or without looking for local pre-existing expertise), the prices and daily rates it has paid, all seen notably and perhaps most shockingly in those pictures of ‘school meal’ replacements.

All of this points to an insistence that we must – and can – do better in the future.  We need to sweep away much of the ways we think about supporting and helping individuals and communities to live decent lives.  The ways we were doing this before the pandemic (which was not working) should be unacceptable now; we can not return to what was there before, as it was failing people, communities and the country.  We have to treat citizens better and involve them properly in the life of the community and country, and build our local resilience.

What might this mean? 

For the last six months or so I have been part of the Social Renewal Advisory Board for the Scottish Government.  This was tasked with looking at the social aspects of renewal for Scotland post-pandemic.  Based around practical expertise and listening extensively to the lived experiences of those most affected by the pandemic, the Board was directed to come up with radical solutions to some of our deep-seated social problems and notably those that enabled so much damage and differential impacts in the pandemic.

The Social Renewal Advisory Board Report is now published.  It is both a view of what needs to be done now, and in the coming years.  It is organised around 20 Calls for Action (see below) which together seek to alter the nature of our deeply differentiated and segregated society.  My involvement was mainly in the communities and place components of these (in the Calls for Action, Communities and Collective Endeavour); listening to and about the lived experiences of so many, showed why we must change our approach nationally, and how communities, places and towns can be important in this.

There will be inevitable reactions to the Report around costs and economics, but if we are at all serious about being a wellbeing and a fairer country, then we must take such steps and alter many of our priorities and actions. We need to make the join up between social and economic renewal (and recall the words of Jacinda Ardern – “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success … It is failure”).

It simply is not right that if you come from certain places, had certain types of jobs (or no job), had pre-existing conditions, disability or deprivation, or a certain colour of skin, then you were so much more likely to die last and this year.  That you had so little to fall back on, other than the kindness of neighbours or strangers. And that this was the consequence of our actions over years.

We can do better; we must do better, and we must start now. Here are the Calls to Action. The detail is in the Report.

The Social Renewal Advisory Board Report (2021) If Not Now, When?  Download available here.

Posted in Community, Covid19, Food, Government, Local Authorities, Pandemic, Places, Public Health, Scotland, Scottish Government, Towns, Uncategorized, Well being | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Goodbye 2020 – Hello 2021 and beyond

The Covid19 addled 2020 is behind us in calendar terms, though we are continuing to live through the lockdowns, and all their implications, at the start of what in normal times might be a brand new shiny year.  In a previous post I looked back at what had attracted an audience to the blog in 2020.  In this piece I want to give some more broad reflections and look forward to what it might (or should) mean in 2021.

Retailing in 2020 was upended, with much of it classified as non-essential and subject to closure, lockdowns, re-openings and re-lockdowns.  Retailers (and suppliers and producers) hardly knew where to turn.  Unless of course you were a food retailer, especially a local, convenience type retailer, and/or could move online.  Many of these also had a successful Christmas period. Online and local have been the winners of the year in retailer terms (though there are some other large retailers in selected sectors e.g. Halfords. Pets at Home and there seems to be a burgeoning set of independent store openings).

The losers have obviously been the stores that have not been able to open that much in 2020, those that closed and those still likely yet to close, but especially the workers they employed.  A key theme has been acceleration and especially of pre-existing retail trends, but that masks the human cost of rapid transition.

Overall though, retailing has had a positive year in the sense that the sector has delivered and served most customers with products and supply they needed.  A few episodes of panic-buying were smoothed over and online slots massively expanded.  But, use of food banks hit record levels, volunteers were needed to feed parts of the country and deprivation and inequalities grew.  As CACI put it (I paraphrase) – in the past the wealthy used their wealth to travel, in the pandemic they used it to stay cocooned at home. Others were nowhere near so fortunate.

So, what should we have learned?  Our system is not sustainable from a human nor a climate concern angle.  Our retail key workers (as others) need to have a proper wage and conditions; but our local independent businesses need also to be able to make money.  We need more local, resilient supply chains and to focus on serving the population more equitably and fairly.  How can we justify our system when the ‘safety net’ of food banks, emergency parcels and so on has been normalised and where the ownership and use of a car is the essential requirement to go shopping in many cases?

When we were locked down we leant on the local, the community – and yes online.  So we need to build these local networks and ensure physical and economic access to what has become a lifeline, expected service.  Retailers did in many cases step up, but we need this to be the norm.  Hopefully in 2021 we will not forget those that did the right thing and actively shun those that sought to exploit the situation or to hide behind legalese of doing only what is demanded by the exact letter of the law.  How about doing the right thing by society as the price for doing business?

These are big asks for 2021 and I am pretty certain they will not be delivered.  Wholesale system change to benefit vulnerable people seems to be beyond the imagination of the UK Government.  But this is not going away.  In 2019 we were still seeing the adverse impacts of the financial crash from a decade previous.  We can not afford another lost decade for swathes of society. I suspect 2021 is about getting used to the idea things will never be the same again (generally and in retailing) as we learn to live with Covid19 (and prepare for the next virus).  But in the years from now as we do that, we need to ensure change is for the better, and for the population as a whole; that we support what we value and stop enabling businesses and activities that damage our collective whole; and that wellbeing and fairness drives so much more of our decision-making and government spending.

Some retailers are moving that way already; as are some towns and urban centres.  We need to help them and support them and fight the siren calls of returning to how we were.  The system was not working; we have to use 2021 to begin to build back fairer, healthier and better for all.  Anything else trashes the memories of those we lost in 2020 – and continue to lose.

Over the next few weeks I will start to look at what that might mean as the reports for the Scottish Government from the Social Renewal Advisory Board and the Town Centre Action Plan Review are published. And probably revisit the impact of Brexit (though the UK Government can not say they weren’t warned).

Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Employment, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Government, Independents, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Panic buying, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Social Change, Social Inequality, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment