This is a rather longer post than I had intended, but given I worked pretty hard for 8 months on the Report to which the Response has just been published, I hope you will indulge me.
In 2020 I was asked by the then Cabinet Secretary to chair a Review into the Town Centre Action Plan. The Review Group undertook its task through a variety of methods and approaches. The resultant report “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres” was published in February 2021. If you have not seen it then it is available here, and my three-post blog on aspects of our recommendations can be accessed here.
“We strongly support its overarching aim to work with our communities to transform the future of our town centres, help us recover and learn from the impact of the pandemic and realise the necessary economic, environmental and social wellbeing benefits. We support the vision the review has developed and are determined to work collaboratively using this report to help us to achieve that vision”.
They indicated that due to the Parliamentary elections in May 2021 a formal response would be the responsibility of the next Government and come in due course.
In the meantime, I delivered numerous presentations on the Review and its recommendations, albeit remotely. Scotland’s Towns Partnership and a variety of partners held (and continue to hold) various meetings and seminars on specific aspects of the report and its areas for recommendations and delved into more detail as to how some of these could be delivered. The Review Group met with the new Minister on a couple of occasions to brief him on their thinking. In November 2021, the draft National Planning Framework 4 was published and contained references to our Report and some of the approaches we had advocated (see my thoughts on NPF4).
The intention had been that the Scottish Government and COSLA would produce its formal response by the end of 2021. As with so many other things, the speed and virulence of the Omicron variant set the timetable back. The National Strategy for Economic Transformation was delayed, as consequently were other important documents, such as the Retail Strategy for Scotland. My comments on the latter and on the City Centre Recovery Task Force Report are available in this blog (Retail strategy; City centres). In the meantime interest in town centres in Scotland has been maintained at a high level, not least through various Parliamentary committees, to which I have presented. Throughout this there has been a broad welcome for the thrust of the “New Vision”, though it is recognised that some of the detailed recommendations are challenging.
The formal Scottish Government/COSLA response to “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres” has now just been published, and is available here. The 21 page document contains forewords by the Minister and by COSLA, a brief background/context and then the components of the Town Centre Action Plan 2022. The Response formally adopts the Review Group’s vision for towns and town centres and places this “Town Centre Action Plan 2” as a Call to Action for all and not purely a government centric approach, reflecting the uniqueness of our towns across Scotland. Governments though at all levels do have a role to play as enablers and funders as well as providing the frameworks and alignments.
TCAP2 now comprises four categories making up the Call to Action:
- Putting the right policy framework in place
- Ensuring the right kind of support
- Providing a framework for investment, and
- Working closely with partners.
In each of these categories, a structure has been adopted that aligns with appropriate outcomes that the Review Group identified as being needed: planning, town centre first, taxation and fiscal levers, town centre living, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies, climate action, measuring and evaluating progress and demonstrator towns.
It would be invidious to select specific suggestions at this juncture; TCAP 2 needs to be considered in the round and in the light of the other major documents with which it aligns, as for example in NPF4 in planning, and in the actions already underway through the Place Based Investment Programme and other initiatives (Scotland Loves Local, Community Wealth Building, Just Transition, Climate Action, 20-minute Neighbourhoods). Taken together these lay out a coherent approach to town centres and begin the process of reversing the harms to town centres from disaggregated, decentralised development.
As Chair of the Review Group, it is a reasonable question as to whether this response meets what would have been my ambitions. Three areas of recommendations were identified in “A New Future”; strengthen planning, sort out the fiscal and taxation levers and focus on specific “demonstrator” aspects of town centres. Progress since “A New Future” on the first and third of these has been strong, and TCAP2 reinforces and extends that commitment and actions . The Response to the second recommendation area is, understandably, more mixed. There are good statements on trying to sort out online taxation and VAT on refurbishing buildings. There is less on the suggested more challenging aspects of taxation on out of town developments, car usage and non domestic rates. But no Review gets everything it wanted, and certainly not in the immediate timescale. We have spent 50 or more years damaging or town centres; it does take time to recognise how to put a genie back in a bottle.
There is thus, in my view, much to applaud in this Response, not least the action-oriented style of writing and the detail and specifics. Investment has been made and one hopes that more will be forthcoming. As the context setting piece notes though:
“Words on a page, or bullet points in a plan set the scene; they do not deliver the outcomes we need on the ground. This is not one person’s, one public body or one organisation’s responsibility; it is a shared endeavour and requires individuals in whatever role they have to take positive action. It also requires all of us to reflect on and avoid actions and decisions which continue to damage and harm our town centres. This Call for Action sets out some of the ways in which we can all seek to do our part, locally and nationally, in re-building, re-energising and re-imagining our towns to meet our place and country ambitions.”
The Scenario at the end of the Response lays out where the hope is these actions will take us:
“What are these actions designed to achieve?
Towns that develop in a sustainable way, that enable communities to influence that development, and build on the empowerment approaches across Scotland. Communities of identity and interest, particularly those experiencing inequalities, empowered to identify their own needs and opportunities, and supported to participate in planning their own futures.
Place based approaches to town centres embedded across policy areas so that support, funding and decision making is better co-ordinated and aligned to deliver the collaboratively agreed vision unique to that town centre. With demonstrators testing and showcasing what is possible to inspire other town centres to adapt the learning to their local context and setting.
More opportunities for living well locally in our town centres, where the design, development and management of our towns support people to meet most of their daily needs locally within a 20-minute neighbourhood helping us address climate change, meet our net zero ambitions, encourage healthier active travel options and reduce the need to travel unsustainably.
The development of local wellbeing economies with town centres at their heart, which put people, place and planet first and foremost; enabling and empowering communities to tackle poverty and inequality on their own terms. Where more town centre assets are owned, managed and used locally, creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs, capacity and skills building – with equity of access to digital. Where local decision making is based on a deep understanding of local assets, resources and challenges to enable local partners to focus on the issues that matter to them in the places they live, work, play and spend time in.”
The proof of course will be on the ground in towns across Scotland, but it does feel like the good work stemming from the Fraser Review through the first Town Centre Action Plan and subsequent actions, is being built on and extended. We now need to be more ambitious for our town centres and seek to live up to the vision stated by the Review Group:
“Towns and town centres are for the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centres successful.”
This Response helps in that regard.