Last Thursday, all eyes turned to Kilmarnock as Derek Mackay launched the Scottish Government’s response to the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres). The response, with its 37 actions, had been eagerly awaited over the Autumn, and now it is out, we can all begin to try to work out what it means and complain that it (a) hasn’t solved the problem in one fell swoop (b) doesn’t include our pet scheme, hobby horse or mad idea (c) has no (new) money attached to it (d) failed to get the UK government out of its rates disaster (e) all of the above and a lot more I can’t think of at the moment.
Given the 9 or so months that went into the Fraser Review and the discussions Malcolm no doubt had with Government, plus the four or so months the Government has been thinking about and preparing its response, I feel the least I can do is wait a little while before responding and/or praising and/or criticising. So forgive me if what follows is a plea to engage in the discussion about what it all means over the next wee while and not to attack or defend either the Review or the Response.
Sorting town centres out is hard; if it wasn’t then we’d have done it by now. It is going to take a long time and involve lots of groups; there is no quick fix, whatever anyone thinks. It will require changed behaviours, a changed system and some fundamental rethinking of how we do a lot of things. The Government can kick start some of these, but it can’t do it all. Local government will have to change, perhaps fundamentally, and not all places are up to it, or want to engage in it. And that’s fine. Government can alter the playing field in some ways so as to make those that do engage with the new direction the winners; and that’s local authorities and types of businesses and types of property owners. But it is not going to happen overnight.
There is an urgency, but quick fixes are doomed to fail – just ask Mary Portas and David Cameron. And when your new (English) minister Brandon Lewis calls Bill Grimsey’s report “a pile of crap” you know things are getting ridiculous. So let’s get it right in Scotland.
I therefore welcome the Government’s response to the Review (and I was involved on the EAG for the review). I want to take a while to think about what it means, and what it doesn’t mean and doesn’t do. I feel it deserves some considered thinking at least.
Part of that thinking is going to be in public. Some weeks ago I agreed to speak at the Cross Party Group on Towns and Town Centres and the date was fixed for next Wednesday at the Parliament. My title: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Portas, Grimsey and Fraser. The intention is to briefly review these three major reports and then to try to move beyond reports to actions needed. We’ve agreed I will still do this, but will go on to initiate discussion about Mackay’s response.
The second public discussion will no doubt take place at Scotland’s Towns Conference, to be held at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness on the 22nd November. I have been asked to try to chair the day and the first speaker is Derek Mackay – our new minister for town centres in Scotland. This will be a good opportunity to hear him lay out his thinking in the response and what happens next. As ever (and you can’t say that about all politicians), he has agreed to take questions, so if you can’t come to Inverness, drop me an email with your questions and I will try to use them. The rest of the Programme is pretty good as well.
If you are interested in the CPG or in Scotland’s Towns Conference then please contact Scotland’s Towns Partnership quickly.
A big couple of weeks and months coming up for Scotland’s Towns; lots of things to think about and then lots of actions to get on with. Exciting times, we hope.