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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

WEE Can Succeed……

WeBlog21These days, Scotland is the subject of endless, sometimes hysterical stories of doom, gloom and impending ruin. It’s a wonder we haven’t all drowned in entropy or spontaneously imploded.

It’s a ludicrous and depressing distraction, but fortunately as this ethereally-mongered fear falls to earth it is finding itself slowly overgrown by green shoots. Life remains challenging but there are signs of spring, at least metaphorically.

Take last weekend’s RIAS International Convention, which took as it its theme ‘BIG World, WEE Scotland’. The event grew in the telling, culminating in a warmly barbed poetic contribution from the Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead. There were examples of positive projects and programmes from Europe and the UK, with the transformation of Copenhagen into a people-friendly city a particular inspiration to all who gathered.

Case studies from our close neighbours, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands suggested they are all big enough, wealthy enough and smart enough not only to take care of themselves but to prosper as modern societies.

My own case studies included Tomintoul & Glenlivet, where the communities are rapidly rediscovering themselves. Their recently adopted Regeneration Strategy bridges the urban and rural divide by co-ordinating action across the historic planned village of Tomintoul, the dispersed rural settlement of Glenlivet and a thinly populated 200km2 rural catchment. Its scope extends well beyond large-scale habitat and landscape focused approaches such as RSPB’s Futurescapes and SWT’s Living Landscapes by also focusing on people, communities and place.

A translation of this planner-speak might read, ‘many local people have come together to improve the place they live’. It’s a project which has grown from the ground up, led tentatively then expertly by the community. It attracted exceptionally dynamic and motivated support from the Cairngorms National Park Authority, giving it momentum.

It won backing from the Crown Estate at Glenlivet – the major landowner in the area. Soon, Moray Council, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Visit Scotland also climbed aboard. A partnership centred on the two local community associations and the area business group has underpinned the Regeneration Strategy.

A previously divided community exposed to long term socio-economic shifts and public service downgrading is rapidly reinventing itself. Membership of a new delivery vehicle – the Tomintoul & Glenlivet Development Trust – already exceeds 25% of the local population.

The area has been selected as one of only 6 community broadband pioneer projects in Scotland. An under-performing Youth Hostel has been taken on by the Trust and renovation is underway. The Crown Estate is on site with a £500,000 Mountain Biking Centre. Gateway public realm and landscaping is proceeding with Cairngorms National Park Authority-secured ‘shovel ready’ Scottish Government funding.

Obviously this alone will not transform Scotland’s economy or society. It won’t register as a case study of ‘BIG World’ significance. However, in its own way, it is a beacon amongst numerous illuminating projects across Scotland, where people and communities are taking a lead in reinvigorating themselves.

As an antidote to our inability to see opportunity, possibility and capability, WEE Scotland has BIG lessons for us all.

“If aw his hums and haws were hams and haggises, the country wad be weel fed!” Liz Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, 1987.

Richard Heggie

21 May 2013