Today (March 7th), I am presenting at a Living Streets Seminar. I was asked to talk about retailing in car-dominated places and what follows is a summary of sorts (and the overheads) of my presentation.
In responses to the climate emergency, some measures of change have been tagged to 2030. 2030 though is only 80 or so months away and so time is really short, if goals are to be achieved. If we want to move to a just transition, reduce car kilometres driven by 20% by 2030, drive up active travel, develop 20-minute neighbourhoods and so on then we need to get on with it. The reality however seems to be that whilst we have made a good start on some things, much remains ‘business as usual’ and attitudes and behaviours remain unchanged.
We do have a lot of great sounding policy, but are we robust enough in reversing the patterns of the last 50 years? Over that time, we have decentralised, disaggregated and damaged our communities and privileged car dependency. The retail revolution has led to a structural transformation focused on car and van journeys. This has been enabled by the way we have chosen to develop sites (commercial, governmental, housing etc) often without shared local resources and thus ensuring that cars are a requirement.
The net result is the decline in our town centres and community fabric and on the social aspects of life. This was only slightly remediated in the pandemic when “local” became the required normal.
I won’t rehearse the detail of our report ‘A New Future for Town Centres’ (see summary here) but would note that the recommendations we made for planning and policy and finance for projects has been largely delivered. Of course it could go further and more finance always helps, but it is a really good start. Where there is no progress is in the more radical rebalancing of our fiscal levers. I appreciate this is hard, faces resistance, requires other parties including UK Government to agree etc, but time is ticking to see progress.
We will not succeed in reversing our car dependency by business as usual, nor will we rebuild our communities, develop community wealth building or 20-minute neighbourhoods or increase our health and wellbeing, unless we address not only incentives for positive town centre change but disincentives for harmful behaviours.
Some may recall my not so slight outburst last year at a proposed large out of town development in Stirling, which quite unbelievably received planning permission from Stirling Council. Thankfully it was rejected by the Government Minister in late 2022. But the proposal is back again, slightly smaller but still hugely car dependent and car journey generative. Given NPF4 and all our climate arguments, why would this be entertained? It excludes swathes of the population, harms the environment and our ambitions for liveable places. This is all about land and money, so we need to use the levers that developers understand.
Overall, I am positive about the directions we are going but slightly frustrated at the pace, though I do recognise the constraints politicians at all levels have to work under. Three years ago I began to rehearse the arguments I make today (and are in “A New Future for Scotland’s Towns Centres). Change can be slow, but then again, it’s 80 months to 2030 and that clock is ticking.