Three long years after the last such event, we were finally able to host Scotland’s Towns Conference in person. On Wednesday 16th November a sell-out crowd of over 220 people made their way to the impressive Centrestage in Kilmarnock (Scotland’s largest Community Led Asset Transfer) to listen, debate, discuss, meet, learn and advise about all things town and town centre related.
For once, I was able to sit back and take it all in, having no speaking role. What follows are my reflections on what I heard. I am not focusing on the detail as I could not do justice to the breadth and depth of the speakers, nor of some of the discussions, but instead consider some broad thoughts.
The conference keynote kicked it all off, with Tom Arthur MSP, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, welcoming delegates and pointing to the many good things underway, despite the challenges we all face economically. He focused to start with on the revised National Planning Framework 4 (more from me on this towards the end of this week) and the very strong support that this provides for town centres. He allied this though to the rise in and need for localism, community empowerment and engagement and wealth building and for enhanced connectivity and collaboration in places.
The breakout sessions of the conference (the main components of the day’s discussions) focused on the themes from A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres – Climate and Net Zero, Creative Towns, Streets and Spaces, Digital Towns, Town Centre Living and Enterprising Communities. They all showcased great local work on the ground under each of the themes. Yes, there are barriers and challenges (and in some councils these again seem to be self-inflicted – the one that stood out for me was the council that objected to its own town centre social housing scheme), but the abiding impression was the local positivity over what can be achieved. Throughout the day this was also seen in the showcasing of the excellent work underway in East Ayrshire and Kilmarnock. Real differences are being made on the ground.
The breakout sessions were supported by a plenary presentation by Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director of Portland Design who focused on Future-ready retailing and how to reimagine the customer experience, rebuild retail spaces and reignite our shopping malls and streets.
The theme of making a difference locally was also evident in the finale of the conference, the Scotland Loves Local awards. Winners (and runners-up) in all the categories have done amazing work in their communities and all awards were richly deserved. No-one though could but be moved by the winner of the High Street hero award – Marion Gilliland – and the film about her shop, work, passion and love for Cumnock and its inhabitants. This was a fitting end to a great return to an in-person Scotland’s Towns Conference.
The 2022 winners of the Scotland Loves Local Awards are (and you can learn about their stories and activities here:
And thanks to all the sponsors of these awards: