In January 2022 the Economy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish Parliament began its preparation and work into its “Inquiry into Retail and Town Centres in Scotland”. As this blog has covered before, I gave evidence to the Inquiry in March 2022 (my opening statement here, and the official record of the session here). A number of other sessions with others and site visits took place through to the summer, with the report being published on 29th November 2022.
The report makes interesting, if perhaps not unsurprising reading. It aligns very closely with both my evidence and “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres” and is supportive of the Town Centre Action Plan 2 (TCAP2) which has emerged from this work (see also my blog posts on these, here and here). As would be expected there are areas of disagreement (amongst those giving evidence, the committee and with the issues themselves) but broadly this is a supportive report on the range of work underway.
My reading suggests a number of areas of particular focus and interest.
- A clearly supportive stance on town centres (and not solely for economic reasons) and a recognition of the challenges they face and the need to re-balance the costs and opportunities of town centres and out-of-town development. Whilst some disagreements existed (taxation/charges, moratorium on out-of-town developments, the statutory place of town centres in National Planning Framework 4), the thrust is clear – we have to do better for our town centres. A consistent theme around the problems of Non-Domestic Rates (NDR) was recognised by the committee.
- The committee does push the Scottish Government in a number of areas. The need to align activities within government is made clear and at points a lack of clarity and responsibility is identified amongst organisations. The need for clear funding for TCAP2 delivery is stated. The recently established Retail Industry Leadership Group is welcomed but concerns are raised (perhaps prematurely as it is only getting started now) over its membership, coverage, knowledge and plan of delivery. The committee pushes for detail in a number of places.
- There is a concern over tools and how to use them. The decline in planning functions and resources is noted, as are the disagreements over the sufficiency or resources of existing approaches and tools. For example, are Compulsory Purchase Orders not much used because they are not fit for purpose or because there are no resources to implement them? Much is also made of the difficulties of dealing with property ownership in town centres (and I will post more on this in my next post on this blog), both in terms of who to deal with, and how to get action.
- Finally there is the issue of e-commerce and online activities. The lack of e-commerce take-up and support in Scotland is noted by the committee with a call for improvements in both targeted at smaller enterprises. The issue of an online tax is mooted, and receives mixed reaction. The key for me is not to see this as “simply” a re-balancing of the physical/digital spaces, but more as a reflection of the changed nature of the economy, and a necessary adjustment to the economic realities.
At almost a recommendation/conclusion a page, this is a detailed report. It ploughs lines we know, and are working on, but it is good to see cross-party support for the direction and especially for the recognition that:
“the actions, focus and shifts to achieve the vision for Scotland’s towns are multi-faceted and will require to be owned and driven over successive Parliamentary sessions to reverse the decades-long decline”.