My interactions with MSPs on the subject of shopping, retailing and town centres have never been really that impressive – they probably say the same of me. If often wonder if, as they spend so much time politicking, they get more and more divorced from what is the everyday experience of Scottish consumers and of the state of our town centres and high streets.
But maybe they are beginning to catch the wave developing in Scotland about towns and town centres and the need for a proper sense of place in our country. I say this, as last week I attended the re-establishment meeting of the Cross Party group on Towns and Town Centres and was more than pleasantly surprised by the attendance in general (about 70 people) and of MSPs in particular.
There is still some formal stuff to go through to re-establish the group, but assuming there is no hold up here, then over the next couple of years it will act as a focus to channel information, policy and action through to MSPs on this critical subject. The group agreed that Margaret McCulloch MSP would be the convener and that Scotland’s Towns Partnership would be the secretariat.
The remit of the group was agreed as:
“To analyse policy prescriptions and develop ideas and innovations. This will help Scotland’s towns and town centres through the current economic climate to emerge stronger, smarter, cleaner, healthier and greener.
The group will discuss ways in which Scotland’s towns can work towards sustainable economic growth thought greater vibrancy and vitality.
The group will also consider how best to take forward recommendations from the town centre review and the government’s regeneration strategy”
The meeting, after the formal stuff, then heard presentations by Malcolm Fraser on progress and current thinking in the National Town Centres Review, Ross Martin on the actions and approaches of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Iain Scott from Scotpreneur on what people really think about town centres and why they build businesses and work in them. The technology slightly let down the last presentation, but some of the stories and vignettes can be found in the section on town centre stories here.
There’s a long way to go and getting MSPs to an initial meeting may be the easier part of the process. There is also a gulf between talking and actions (rates revaluation anyone?), but at least the initial steps were characterised by engagement and dynamism, which had been missing previously.
So we have a forum for MSPs to learn more about the state of, and the actions needed, for our towns and town centres. Now we have to make sure that we use this in the right ways and get MSPs to take the right decisions, and make sure every town’s politicians are held to account for their local centres.
As traders representative for 15 years in a small town (but now resigned) I’m afraid I glaze over slightly when I hear about ‘vibrancy and vitality’ because so often that is a precursor for consultants to come up with a plan to make a bad situation worse.
The keys to regenerating town centres as I see it are as follows:
1)They must admit, encourage and embrace the private motorist and car borne families with reasonable access and adequate convenient free parking. That’s what shopping centres and retail parks do and they are the competition. 2) Public transport should be regulated so that congestion is eased. I have seen eight buses in our High Street at one time carrying a total of ten passengers amongst them. This is not untypical. 3) There has to be a dramatic review of the planning system which currently allows retail units to be built willy-nilly. In our town where the town centre currently has around 25 empty units, permission has just been granted to extend the Retail Park! 4) Some sort of franchise system could be operated where there would be a mechanism to prevent over provision. Our town currently has five pubs in the town centre, two of them very large modern food outlets. Guess what? There is a Weatherspoons due to open too! (oh! and a nightclub). They cannot possibly all survive. Demographic information such as that provided by Experian can determine how much the local market is and what it can withstand. Anti-competitive? Perhaps but the current free for all is anti-town!
I’m afraid that without some radical shifts in thinking and planning and transport policy, the hand wringing and ‘something must be done’ mentality will continue untroubled as it has done for the last twenty years and as things have got steadily worse.
Thanks for the comments. In turn:
1. I agree V&V has lost much of its meaning (if it had much) as we don’t really know what it is and what it means for those who use places. I think there is consensus though that the way forward has to be more locally based and locally engaged.
2. Parking and motorists – yes, but it is also about balancing the costs and returns and being cleverer about what we provide at what cost and when. I sense more willingness to try things now,but it does require councils to see parking as a potential attraction and not as a cash cow.
3. Buses – pass. I don’t really follow how the system is meant to work but I accept it does not seem to do so in some places.
4. “Willy-nilly” is a bit of an overstatement and I do think we are seeing a slow down in space overall everywhere (that is not to say some retailers will not want to expand in some places – they will). A simple quantitative count of space is however not helpful as it is about the costs and fitness (quality) of that space for retail and other uses as well. Fossillising a place won’t work in many cases (may in some though if done well).
5.Pubs – in the same way as retail is going through a massive structural change (and has done for a few years) so this market is under rapid change. The issue you raise is whether we should allow competition or give those in place a permanent advantage. Balancing that is a real challenge.
Of course we must allow competition, however it’s been clear now that the free for all and de’il tak the hindmaist current system doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the deregulated (but subsidised!!) bus market and it isn’t working when there is gross over provision. The town centre I’m talking about has four cheque centre/pawnbrokers, four charity shops, three bookmakers, five, soon to be seven pubs*. It has no butcher, fishmonger, hardware store or electrical supplier. Maybe the days have gone for these shops in competition with the supermarkets but the types of business listed above* are all geared pretty much to the lower income groups. The diversity of customer essential for a viable town is not going to be attracted no matter how many MSPs talk about it.
I have attended some of these town centre conferences in the past and at one, in Dunfermline, a quote delivered will always live with me “There needs to be a process where we engage agencies and stakeholders in a holistic approach requiring a place-shaping delivery agenda which aspires towards the most mutually acceptable local outcome”
In plain English? Shape the town to give the customers what they want.
Anyway, interesting blog and thanks for allowing my rant!
And I see Paisley has finally admitted that the reputed £10 million spent pedestrianising the town in 1997 was an ‘epic fail’.
I think that there is a movement to try things in different places that fit the circumstances of that place – so “de-pedestrianisation” might well be on the cards in some towns, in the same way as full pedestrianisation could be in others (where access can be developed and priced properly).
What I do wonder in many of the schemes is why we seem to either develop compromise schemes or simply thjink pedestrianisation is paving over the existing street and sticking the odd bollard in.?
Joanna Blythman in the Sunday Herald a few years ago summed up the whole thing perfectly “Piecemeal, tokenistic pedestrianisation as we know it in small-town Scotland is a proven disaster.” In Paisley everybody but the council could see that they were creating a “doughnut” with the retail centre being the hole in the middle.
The Blythman article is no longer on the web but I preserved it here: http://businessfordumbarton.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/how-to-kill-off-a-once-thriving-town-centre/