Fri 12 Aug 2022

Measuring the success of town centres: are local authorities thinking long term?

“Consider getting smaller in order to get bigger.” - Richard Branson The pressure on high streets and town centres to reflect changing consumer demands is not something new. The success of Scotland’s town centres naturally depends on planning processes that will effect meaningful change in the long-term.    

Ultimately, town centres have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, which devastated high streets and accelerated societal change. 

We could not have foreseen the extent of this damage. Yet, having considered the current legislation in place to revitalise town centres, a mix of long-term vision with the agility to adapt to change is needed in order to achieve meaningful improvement.

On a national level, the Scottish Government published the 2013 Town Centre Action plan aiming to stimulate a wide range of activity across public and private sectors to revitalise town centres. However, COVID-19 brought new and serious economic challenge to towns and required the government to take another look. 

In 2020, the Scottish Government reviewed the 2013 Plan to provide better support for town centres post-pandemic. The result? More autonomy for local authorities to introduce tailor-made strategies to their local area.

Indeed, different town centres have different needs, requiring plans on a smaller scale. By smaller scale, we mean more nimble and location-specific strategies.

With five-year, even ten-year plans, albeit designed to mould a place over time to account for changing demands, perhaps the time has come to consider a much smaller timeframe.

We are seeing this already: local authorities are taking the initiative to review their town centres to ensure that improvements are being made.

Take Kirkcaldy as an example. Over the past ten years, Fife Council has consistently introduced new measures and plans to incentivise town centre visits.

These plans build on the council’s 2015 Town Centre Design and Development Framework and range from turning old offices into new housing, the organisation of activities and events with the potential to bring more people into the area, and demolishing Kirkcaldy’s Esplanade car park.

Here, Fife Council has identified design and development opportunities that would enhance the role, function, attractiveness and, therefore, success of Kirkcaldy town centre. More importantly, it has responded to changing consumer demands for town centres and allowed micro-planning to take the lead.

This is mirrored across several town centre plans. One of the most deprived towns in Scotland, Alloa, was granted £683,000 by the Scottish Government to improve its town centre. Clackmannanshire Council responded by introducing five projects which focused on a micro-level. Three of these focus on small improvements to one street alone.

It is worth considering the importance of looking at one street at a time. Ultimately, when revitalising a town centre, it usually comes down to improving the main street.

Key stakeholders, particularly local institutional landlords, have a role to play in this. New developments on the high streets will ultimately contribute to the look and feel of a town centre.

The Johnnie Walker immersive experience on Princes Street is a good example of this. The opening of St James Quarter has left Princes Street falling flat and the whisky adventure has brought welcome footfall to the area as consumers look for a new experience on the famous street.

Ultimately, town centres will benefit from smaller scale strategies that can be implemented at pace. Long-term plans tend to concentrate too much on the bigger picture and don’t allow for responding to changing trends, like the pandemic.

The bigger-picture vision needs to be informed by and reactive to the smaller picture. If local authorities are nimble and reactive to change, Scotland’s town centres can achieve sustainable growth. 

This discussion is well timed as the Scottish Government recently entered a second review of the Permitted Development Order – an opportunity for changes to be made to permitted development rights and a change between use classes.

The review involves the consolidation of town centre shops, financial and professional services, food and drink, business and possibly other use classes into a new town centre use class. 

The impact could be quite radical.

No planning permission would be necessary for changes of use within the town centre class and no means of controlling such activity would exist, either by refusing permission or by imposing conditions on consents granted.

Because this change introduces such significant flexibility, it is not without risks. The balance of uses within city centre areas could shift from the planning authority control to the hands of market trends. 

As a result, there could be multiple businesses of one use in concentrated areas. For example, there could be multiples of shops selling one type of product lining a main street.

While this could be merited in the short term, it poses a threat to the long-term. Abundance could dissuade visitors, potentially leading to closures. 

Flexibility is key, but ensuring planning continues to maintain some form of oversight will be important to preventing these types of issues. The results of the Scottish Government’s review this August will hopefully point to how some of these concerns will be mitigated, too.

Ultimately, the success of our town centres naturally depends on the planning processes in place that will allow for long-term and meaningful change. However, the pandemic has shown how being nimble will also drive success.


This article was originally published in The MJ

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