This afternoon (26th October) Scotland’s leading environmental regeneration delivery partner, the Green Action Trust, is hosting a virtual roundtable discussion on how Scotland can achieve long-term change. This takes the form of a conversation with the Scottish Government’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform and a panel and audience discussion with selected business and regeneration experts.
As Scotland plays host to COP26 this autumn, the event examines the readiness of and opportunities for organisations across the public, private and third sectors to deliver meaningful environmental regeneration and climate actions that benefit communities now and in generations to come.
The session is opened by the Minister, Mairi McAllan MSP, followed by three short focused statements to set the scene and try to energise the discussion with the audience.
I have been asked to present on “Changing Scotland’s Towns” and to put the recent recommendations from our Review of the Town Centre Action Plan (“A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centers“) into their wider environmental context. Whilst some of this goes over ground much covered since the Report launch in February, I feeel it is worthwhile to provide the text of what I am saying below. With Green Action Trust and Scotland’s Towns Partnership collaborating on these issues, we hope to make progress in the coming months and years.
“Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation and the introduction.
Scotland is a nation of towns and the Scottish town has been a recognisable and distinct urban form over centuries. In the last 50+ years it has though been assailed by the decentralisation and disaggregation tendencies and approaches of many sectors. This has led to a fragmented, personalised/individualistic and car-centric economy, to the detriment of society and towns and an increase in inequalities.
This was recognised a decade or more ago in Scotland, when it was identified that there was a place or town issue well beyond the ‘crisis on the high street’. The National Review of Town Centres (the Fraser Review) identified steps to be taken to ameliorate the effects. Scottish Government, COSLA and others combined to focus on policies and practices such as Town Centre First, the Town Centre Action Plan and the Place Principle. Investment has been stepped up and the recent multi-year co-ordinated Place Based Investment Programme, with its focus on town centre revitalisation, 20-minute neighbourhoods, community led regeneration and community wealth building, is a significant step forward.
In the meantime however, there has been a declaration of a Climate Emergency. National Outcomes have been developed based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These force a focus on community involvement and ownership, health, wellbeing and inclusive economic growth, tackling inequalities and disadvantage, sustainable production and consumption and a commitment to move to net zero.
The emphasis is on local, communities, wellbeing, sustainability the importance of place and thus in a Scottish context, the role of towns and town centres. The challenge is considerable and the time to start real action is limited.
This is why in 2020 the Scottish Government commissioned a review of the Town Centre Action Plan, which I chaired, and which was published in February 2021 as ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’. This developed a new vision for towns based around people, the planet and the economy.
We were asked to be challenging and to develop ways forward to deliver a greener, healthier and more sustainable future for Scotland’s towns and town centres.
Our recommendations for towns and town centres came in three areas. One of these was on local targeted actions on specific topics such as town centre living, digital use, diversity of activities and enterprise and greener, climate aware, more pleasant towns. Building on the excellent local work underway, and the recognition that towns are unique places, the work on Climate Action Towns, greener spaces and our (Scotland’s Towns Partnership) partnership with the Green Action Trust aims to ensure towns and town centres are climate aware and greener to the benefit of local communities.
A second area of recommendation is on policy, planning and data. Here there is anticipation for the forthcoming National Planning Framework 4 and for communities co-producing plans for their areas to lead local efforts to improve communities, places and people’s lives. We also note though that data and measures, especially on ‘green’ activity in towns and town centres is underdeveloped in comparison to the mainly economic analysis, which tends to be on misunderstood and regularly abused “measures” such as footfall and vacancy. This needs to be rebalanced and addressed and there are many opportunities. The Place Standard and other local health and wellbeing focused approaches are one step. But, for example, should each town have to report on (or indeed regulate) the proportion of public space allocated to pedestrians, active travel and cars/vehicles? How should we measure the green space required in towns and our progress towards providing it? We need ytour assistance in conceptualising and the developing the measures for our revised Understanding Scottish Places.
Our third, and most controversial area, was a plea to stop doing harm to our towns and town centres. Development away from town and town centres, and this goes well beyond retailing, has been privileged, supported and financially advantaged in its decentralised, disaggregated carbon hungry approach. Our report proposes steps to halt and then reverse this and thus to align government practices with the stated national policies. This will enable delivery of the National Outcomes and a response to the Climate Emergency to be begun. Failure to act or any prevarication on this will carry large costs for communities, towns and the planet, and also, as the First Minister said yesterday, damage the credibility of our national statements on climate action.
We need to rethink our dependence on this form and location of development and focus on more sustainable opportunities. Towns and town centres are at the heart of this with their sunk carbon and other costs, ability to enhance active travel and sustainability, as well as reducing inequalities and building communities. Action is needed now to halt and reverse our socially constructed harms and to refocus on our urban centres and neighbourhoods. This is a big ask of governments, organisations and individuals and behaviours of all will have to change. This will take time and there needs to be a managed transition, but we must start now. Putting off decisions to move activities back to town centres, as we have recently seen, or worse still, continuing to entertain, to even commit to, out-of-town auto-centric development should no longer be part of our considerations.
A few final observations.
The Climate Emergency and our inequalities can not be wished away. We will end up having to deal with them, so the sooner we start, the easier (and probably cheaper) it will be. These first steps are the hardest, but once we start, we are on that journey. There is an especial urgency to do this first in partnership with our hardest hit communities. The biggest gains for equality, sustainability and wellbeing can be made in these places and situations.
If we don’t act to alter our approach, then the concepts of 20 minute neighbourhoods, town centre first, place partnerships and community wealth building will end up as empty slogans. We have to have the will to make them realities, and this is therefore about accepting the need for, and making, hard decisions.
We created the world we live in and now is the time to re-create it in a move sustainable, greener, town and town centre focused form, for the good of people, the planet and the economy.