On the 16th January there was a debate in the Scottish Parliament – not a long one mind – on the Government’s Town Centre Action Plan. The Official Record of the debate is available on the Parliament’s website and I dare say on the Parliament TV archive if you want images to go with your soundbites.
Anyhow, to be positive, the fact that there was a debate in the first place is a good thing, even at one hour in length. What’s even more positive is the tine and quality of the debate when compared to similar ones in the UK Parliament. When London has debated high streets and town centres it seems to degenerate rapidly into a MPs tour of constituencies and their own being better/different/whatever than their neighbours or anyone elses.
So, congrats are due on holding the debate and on taking the subject seriously.
Now the more negative bit! Did I expect the debate to do anything or add much? Well not really, and I was not disappointed on the whole. But then that was not really the point of the exercise,
Eleven MSPs, including the Minister and the convener and members of the Cross Party Group on towns and town centres, spoke at varying lengths, and with one exception seemed to have grasped the main issues. The tone was to a high degree supportive of the Fraser review and much of the. Government’s response in the Town Centre Action Plan, though often wanting more done faster. Only at the end did the debate descend into party bickering.
So with all this harmony, welcoming and general enthusiasm, what were the points I felt worth mentioning:
* The TCAP is a start and not the end, with lots of actions starting
* Some new money has been found (New demonstration project money is available) though this is seen by many as a ‘drop in the ocean’ of what is needed
* The Town Centre First Principle has not yet been embedded across governments at all levels and urgently needs to be – the issues of the Courts and Police closures show this
* Rates and Rates relief are important, though for me the best intervention on this area focused on the problems of valuations and appeals processes as well. So much of this system is broken.
* The Minister committed to a Summit on pay day loan and bookies “shops” and their siting and dominance. This is a good thing.
* Access to towns needs more focus including on cycling and walking, though the need to make public transport and transport hubs more welcoming was also raised. Too many of our railway stations etc and their environs are a disgraceful advert for the towns they serve.
At the Scotland’s Towns conference in November the Minister agreed to report on progress on TCAP one year on. The tenor of the debate is that stuff is starting to happen but it needs to be accelerated and driven forward even more strongly. Everyone seems to have a wiil to do it; it’s now about making actions happen on the ground. On this point the Minister’s comment “Where’s the LA response to Fraser and TCAP” seemed pointed I thought.
So, overall a good start and positive views on what can and needs to be done and suggestions on how to do it. I was actually moderately encouraged by the debate, though under no illusion of how much needs to be done and quickly.