There are many reasons why out-of-town development/greenfield development is the preferred option for many activities and development. Beyond retail we see cinemas, offices, hotels, sports facilities, schools – the list goes on – moving out of town centres.
Some of the reasons for this are to do with the financial regime in place and the comparative simplicity of building on a ‘clean’ site rather than a complicated, messy, pre-existing one in a town centre. Yes, you lose character but you gain space, efficiency, time and money. What’s not to like?
Altering this playing field is a rather large task and one that needs national levers to be pulled and the costs to be rather more generally calculated. This takes a change in mindset and some time.
But some of the other reasons for the greenfield bonanza are rather more to do with the complexity and cost of doing things in the town centre and the lack of harnessing the breadth that a town centre offers.
The National Review of Town Centres was responded to by the Scottish Government in the form of the Town Centre Action Plan (TCAP). One of the component principles/actions in both was the rather nebulous concept of Proactive Planning.
Proactive Planning seeks simple, encouraging planning policy and activities to support vibrant town centres. To explore what could be done the Scottish Government identified and funded 14 pilot projects across 9 local authorities who wished to consider collaboration and test approaches to help simplify planning processes in town centres. Financial support was a welcome but limited £119K; but this project is about more than money.
The first set of Town Centre Planning Pilots case studies and How To Guides (all written to a core template meant to encourage learning, sharing and action elsewhere) are now available at Scotland’s Towns Partnership website.
Seven reports are available:
Hamilton – A town sculpture trail
Elgin – A food and drink trail
Fife – Proactive building condition work
Kirkcaldy – Clarity of the Development Plan
Govan – Central Govan Action Plan
Renfrew – Simplified Planning Zone
Fife – Removing developer contributions
This mix takes a very broad view of proactive planning, which is a positive thing. Hamilton and Elgin are concerned with co-ordination and promotion of activities in the town centre. Govan and Kirkcaldy are about clarity of proposals and making things workable and achievable along Town Centre Toolkit lines. The Fife ‘stitch in time’ focuses on proactive tidying of town centre buildings, especially historical ones.
All are interesting and showcase ideas, but the other two really caught my eye. In Fife the need for developers to make financial contributions on town centre development was removed to secure development on a key site. Levelling the playing field and creating opportunities has to be a way forward.
The Renfrew example, as highlighted at STP’s National Towns Conference in Falkirk (November 2015) was the development of a Simplified Planning Zone in Renfrew Town Centre which permits certain development and speeds up and streamlines the planning process by removing some steps and streamlining processes. This is far from ‘anything goes’ but is a way forward for town centres to be more attractive than other cities by becoming simpler and easier to develop in planning terms. This pilot will be closely watched but is potentially hugely replicable. It also begs the question of how far could we go with this?