Centres of Towns : A Back to Front View

Trust-BlogSaving our town centres – or condemning them depending on your view – is planning’s hot topic. We’ll soon hear from Malcolm Fraser’s Scottish Town Centres Review group. Let’s all hope for useful ideas for action from this cluster of capable contributors.

These days, the prevailing logic is that town centres are no longer retail centres. That may be true in some cases, but certainly not all. Apparently, town centres need a new role: widely held to be as revitalised hubs of civic, social and cultural life. Will all these latte drinking, book borrowing, theatre going, speaker’s-cornerists spend a few quid in the last remaining shops?

The hole in this argument is that whilst many town centres have a failing retail function, they’ve also lost their civic, social and cultural function. Make no mistake, that was always as important as the retail role.

Who could disagree that the civic, social and cultural offer should be rebuilt? Meantime, what are we to do with retail? Do we accept that online shopping, out of town retail, supermarkets and general public apathy are irreversible? Why should we find it easier to stem the decline of civic, social and cultural life than to restore the fortunes of retailing?

In reality, we don’t need new functions for town centres. Most of what is being suggested is a resurrection of previous roles, updated for the contemporary era.

We found in our recent Haddington Town Centre Vision project that the same central zone has been performing a ‘market’ role for almost a millennium. It’s success as an economic and social hub will have waxed and waned many times over the centuries. It dipped in the 1950s and 1960s. It needs another positive intervention now. Fortunately that’s happening, with the formation last week of a new community development trust to lead the Vision.

We take a short sighted, egocentric view of the cycle of town centre success and decline (amongst other matters). Our generation shunned traditional centres, embracing retail parks and supermarket developments, located next to main routes, on the edge or beyond our towns. The planning system claimed to oppose this trend. Looking back, we find the system counter-intuitively did much to accommodate it – and it still does. (Braehead? Silverburn? Fort KInnaird? Pentland?)

We assume supermarkets and online shopping will grow endlessly. Five years ago we believed house prices would always rise exponentially. Twenty years ago there was a bank on every street corner – now they’re coffee houses. Thirty or forty years ago, we still had town centre livestock markets. Change happens – that’s equally true for supermarkets and online shopping tomorrow.

Will our generation see the death of town centres? No. We’re not that important in the overall scheme of things. Our town centres will continue to adapt, as they have over the centuries. Our role is to facilitate the process and perhaps try to see the bigger picture. It’s just a shame that we’ve forgotten how to make positive interventions – or perhaps don’t realise that should be part of planning’s core purpose.

Of course we should revitalise civic, social and cultural activity in our town centres. But we also need a retail fightback. The solution is simple: persuade the residents of a town to spend more money in local shops and ideally on local products. If every household in a typical town of 10,000 people diverted £10 a week away from supermarkets and into town centre shops, they’d benefit from a £2.35m rise in annual turnover.

That single step would transform many of our towns. It should drive our actions and efforts. Once we have these shoppers back in the town centre, we might then think about how we enlist them in that elusive civic, social and cultural remedy.

Finally, we should appreciate that ‘we‘ means not only professionals, businesses, public agencies and traders. People and communities need to be placed back at the heart of town centre regeneration. Each £10 note is precious, every town matters and each of us can make a difference.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury, Author (1920-2012)

Richard Heggie