A few weeks ago the long-awaited Douglas Wheeler Associates report on “Town Centre Regeneration: how does it work and what can be achieved?” was published by the Scottish Government. Four parts are available for download on the website; Summary, Report, TCRF Case Studies and Appendices.
The 18 month long research project set out to develop a clear understanding of activities in town centre regeneration in Scotland and the outputs and outcomes following on from these activities. Specifically the research considered the much-lauded £60m Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) and its success/progress on the ground.
One blog post can not do justice to these documents (c240 pages in total) and the research, so please go and read them yourselves, but some points need repeating here.
Ten learning points and recommendations are presented:
1. Complex concept and town centre regeneration strategies should be integrated and sited within whole town strategies.
2. Recognise scale and distinctiveness of town centres in a changing wider context.
3. Town centre regeneration needs more than physical investment.
4. Need a clear shared vision, strategy and action plan.
5. Partnership is not an outcome; effective and coordinated delivery is essential.
6. Importance of small/medium businesses and potential of community ownership of assets.
7. Improving town centre regeneration project planning; in most cases no clear results chain has been identified.
8. Improving approaches to town centre health check assessment and monitoring.
9. Current effective evaluation of town centre projects has limitations.
10. Address limitations in evaluation: apply Theories of Change.
On TCRF the research notes the importance of the intervention and the ways in which it acted as a confidence builder and accelerator of existing “off the shelf” projects. But the actual TCRF approach was criticised in terms of timescale, capital only requirements, inefficient competitive bidding and a lack of consistent baselines and outcomes. Going forward the research recommends that the TCRF, if re-run, should;
A: Look to a 3/4 year rolling programme to allow better strategic planning.
B: Phase the funding over the 3 to 4 years to allow more considered responses, designs and other potential investment.
C: Allow a longer timescale for the TCRF application process to ensure the full potential of projects and design issues are resolved.
D: Develop Theories of Change as part of the project planning process and follow through on monitoring and evaluation.
Overall the report recommends the dissemination of good practice, development of detailed appraisal criteria skills, development of outcome focused commissioning processes and skills, implementation of town centre health checks and monitoring consistency, and robust evaluation of projects.
Not much to complain about in these then. Many of the points re-iterate issues and topics that have been mentioned before, notably in the Scottish Towns Group report, though here with a stronger evidence base and specificities from the TCRF.
But for me, two things leap out of all this.
First, why are we still having to make noises about the need for clear and consistent data collection, both spatially and longitudinally? If we wish to be serious in terms of everything we do in Scotland, then good quality data has to be the basic building block. How else are we meant to know what is going on and what works and what does not?
Secondly, can we please, when we introduce schemes and proposals (and the TCRF is a good example) do so via proper planned discussion, awareness of possibilities and desired outcomes, and sustain the intervention for a reasonable period – a one-off can not be expected to solve big problems. The TCRF was rightly, much praised, but Scotland’s towns deserve more than this one-hit (and miss) wonder.
Let’s do TCRF again, this time with feeling and having learnt the valuable lessons.