A week or so back I was sent an email about the Alloa Town Centre Post Office being earmarked for closure or “rehoused with a retail partner”. Nothing new in that perhaps – our University post office was closed a few years back despite a captive catchment of 11K students, many international, and the Stirling main post office was moved to the upstairs back of WH Smith in the Thistles shopping centre, not exactly the most user friendly location.
In the case of Alloa, the Town Centre BID has collected over 2K signatures on a petition against closure and MSPs have become involved. The likely future in this case if closure is confirmed would be for the post office to end up in a superstore on the edge or out of town.
At one level it is easy to understand the attitude of the Post Office. They are losing money, seeing their business threatened by competition and societal and structural change, and often operating from premises designed for another age. Down-sizing, seeking partners to take over the service, cutting costs and so on is a rational approach in many ways.
Likewise the recent decision to close some local courts across Scotland on its own is a rational decision to the changing cost structures of operation and the march of new technology.
But here we are in the final throes of a National Town Centres Review in Scotland and we have two decisions (examples of many more) where the individual business need is being seen very narrowly and the cumulative and wider social effect of decisions are not being considered. “Value” is being constructed in a purely individual and economic way. Yet, if we provide even less reasons for people to visit town centres, why should we be surprised when they decide not to frequent them? And does it make sense, just as we are likely to see opportunities to improve our town centres, that businesses, or even worse, local government and other public services move out?
And then, in the middle of this today are reports that the police are beginning to look at putting police stations (or more accurately perhaps police shops) into areas where the public are more likely to engage with them. Examples include, yes, putting police counters into post offices and sharing space. Just maybe we have the start of something here – bodies actually thinking of working together to bring services to shared spaces and using the buildings and facilities we actually have, rather than seeking to create new ones where it is most “economic” or “meets the “value” test?
It is not easy to reconcile the economic with the social in town centres, especially when the playing field in cost terms is so stacked against the town centre location – VAT on refurbishment of old properties as opposed to new build, rates revaluation postponed so a lack of reflection of realities over the last decade, the costs of transport and parking and so on. But, if we are serious about town centres we need to have a presumption for, and a set of signals and practices, that support central places. Otherwise piecemeal, one-off decisions will continue to provide death by a thousand cuts.