Arrested Decay: Any Hope for Scotland’s Town Centres?

Ross Martin, Policy Director at the CSPP, Scotland’s independent think tank and Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling have called for a clear and coherent policy to enhance Scotland’s town centres. In an opinion piece, published recently in The Scotsman they wrote:

“Scotland’s towns and town centres are a defining feature and vital resource for the country. They provide considerable social and economic benefits, improve the quality of life and assist in meeting the Scottish Government’s five strategic priorities for Scotland. Towns and town centres are the beating heart of Scotland and Scottish life.

The reality on the ground however is something far removed from the romantic and nostalgic view of town centres that many people and politicians still harbour. Most of Scotland’s town centres are at best in a state of arrested decay and at worst suffering accelerating decline. The one-off sticking plaster of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund has done its best, but there is so much more that needs to be done to turn the rhetoric, and our ambitions, in to a reality we can be rightly proud of.

This patchwork of responsibilities and the bias towards the modern, more easily and more cheaply built and operated developments out of town has encouraged fragmentation, decentralisation, neglect and then decline. You can’t blame authorities, businesses and then consumers for their actions, when we go out of our way to make town centres difficult and expensive places in which to develop and operate.

We have to rethink and re-invigorate our town centres. We have to re-imagine and re-define their roles. We have to ask fundamental questions as to their function and place in modern society and then decide how we look at, and after, them. If we are to give them the confidence to change their futures and provide the economic, social and cultural foci that they demand  and Scotland deserves, then we need to take a fresh look at our town centres.

It is all too easy to blame one sector or policy for town centre decay. It is all too easy to seek the one solution to solve all their problems. We have, by our own actions over half a century, neglected our town centres, driven by many factors. The way we live has changed, and will change further. If town centres are our lifeblood and point of difference, then we have to support them, guide them and encourage radical thinking and actions over a sustained period. We do not need, nor will we get back the town centre of the 1950s or 1960s, but what we need is energetic and effective town centres for Scotland in the early 21st century.

The alternative to action now is a continued spiral of decline and the loss of something that makes us Scottish, an integral component of this place called Scotland, what it is, and more importantly, what it can be.”

Their comments are based on a presentation by Leigh Sparks to the Parliamentary Reception of the Association of Town Centre Management, March 2011, which launched the Scottish Towns Policy Group report on “Scotland’s Towns and Town Centres: Creating Confidence – Changing Futures”. The full report, the overheads of the presentation and the opinion piece in The Scotsman can be downloaded from the publications page of this blog.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies.
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