One of the issues raised in the recent report by the Economy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish Parliament concerned the lack of transparency over the ownership of much of the property in Scotland. I noted this in the previous post. The issue of “absentee landlords” is not a new one and indeed featured in one of the recommendations of the National Review of Town Centres (the Fraser Review) a decade or so ago. Absenteeism causes delays, difficulties and obstructions to getting things done in town centres, hence the call from the committee for more transparency – something the government says it is working on.
In the week prior to the committee’s report being published, The Herald and The Ferret combined to investigate and report on the ownership of Scotland’s towns, cities, high streets and shopping centres. As the introduction to a week-long series of reports stated:
“The future of our high streets and our urban areas is a key issue as we see an increasing number of vacant properties, derelict and run-down sites and debates over how these areas are developed. This is an emotive issue, one that matters”.
The series of articles, posts and podcasts is well worth taking a look at. I can not cover the detail fully here. Through the week it focused on various aspects of the registration and ownership of property in Scotland urban and retail spaces (see for example ownership of vacant properties, shopping centres with offshore links). The data was drawn from the Scottish Assessors Association and whilst there may be issues of detail and timing the broad points were clear.
Large swathes of Scotland’s high streets and shopping centres are registered and/or owned by firms based in tax havens. Tracking these down can be hard. The firms may be compliant with the existing law, but that is not the issue. Some of the managers of those assets may also be highly engaged in their towns; the issue comes rather with those who are not interested or actively avoiding being found.
Scottish local authorities were also found to own large numbers of vacant properties and spaces. In some cases, sites had “lain empty for years”. The benefits of community ownership were noted, but also the difficulties of achieving this – some of our best examples have succeeded despite the system not because of it.
One of the final pieces in the week offered five solutions to “fix the high street”:
- Incentives for investment
- Find new uses for property above shops
- Use old retail spaces for city centre living
- Create streets instead of shopping centres. But guard our public space
- Support community ownership.
The focus on tax havens points to a problem – distant, remote owners who are not engaged in trying to improve their buildings or towns. You cannot blame them for operating in tax havens per se, as that is the fault of our regulation and laws. Surely, we can alter these to both shed sunlight on ownership but also clamp down on tax havens and the way property is used in this way. We want and need engaged owners; our towns and communities deserve better.
Secondly, the range of local authority ownership points to a missed opportunity and possibility. We need towns to have plans for their future and the use of some of this space as catalysts for the community and community enterprises would seem feasible. These assets need to be brought back into use at a far greater pace and with more community benefit than currently often seen.
Finally, the five steps to fix the high street are all very well, and indeed they chime with things I have long argued for (and appear in A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres and TCAP2). But it is a mistake in my view to separate the problems in-town from the out-of-town advantages. We need to change our approach fundamentally. Why do we talk always about incentives but rarely also disincentives? We cannot simply demand government throws money at the issue (though there is a place for this as seen this with some of the TCAP 2 and Place Based Investment Programme Actions). It is incumbent on all organisations to think about their actions around town centres and locations, but also for governments to be serious about the breadth of change needed if we are to benefit town centres, communities and the climate. That requires commitment to some tough choices and needs us to think more broadly than incentives. This is true of all levels of government and of asset managers of all forms in our towns.