Malcolm Fraser is to spearhead a review of Scottish town centres which is expected to focus on bottom-up regeneration and cultural renewal
Launched a year after Mary Portas’ review of England’s ailing high streets, the initiative will look at ‘new solutions’ for Scotland’s 20,000 deserted shops and offices properties.
Chaired by Malcolm Fraser of Edinburgh-based Malcolm Fraser Architects, the National Review of Town Centres will create an action plan for town centres looking at issues around planning, rents and rates, competition and empty properties.
The panel will include experts from Ernst and Young, Creative Scotland, the Association of Town Centre Managers, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Stirling University and Federation of Small Businesses.
Fraser said: ‘There’s a feeling the Portas Review missed the chance to be ambitious. There was too much of a concentration on retail and representing retail. What we’ve got to understand is town centres are places of culture, living and retail.’
Our shopping habits, living and working habits have changed for good
Fraser said the review would avoid focussing on specific towns but would look to find examples of how previous town centre funding initiatives had helped transform town centres. Pointing to Scotland’s approximately 280 annual arts festivals, he suggested solutions would consider ‘economic levers’, cultural renewal and grass roots regeneration.
He said: ‘The recession has made conventional, cut-down modes of “regeneration” obsolete and we need to find ways to empower local councils, arts bodies and small developers to find ways of doing bottom up regeneration.’
Earlier this month, Aberdeen City Council vetoed £140 million plans by New York’s Diller Scofidio and Renfro to regenerate Union Terrace Gardens. A series of City-wide regeneration schemes were backed in its place. At the time, Fraser described the decision as a ‘mess’.
The architect declined to specifically comment on Union Terrace Gardens in the context of the town centres review, but said: ‘The way the world is going the future will be small and piecemeal and architects need to get their head around that.
‘It does not preclude architectural ambition.’
The review will be discussed during a two-day invited symposium on 25 and 26 September in Kilmarnock.
In a statement, Nicola Sturgeon, deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for infrastructure, investment and cities, said: ‘Town centres are vital to the economic and social fabric of Scotland – they are the heart of our communities, offering a base for small businesses to thrive, and providing a focal point for social interaction.
‘We want to take every measure possible to ensure our high streets are vibrant places where local people want to spend their time and money. In 2009 we awarded £60 million to 66 projects through our Town Centre Regeneration Fund, creating nearly 1,000 jobs. The Review will build on this significant investment.’
She added: ‘With Scotland’s high streets facing a range of challenges, we are eager to ensure that they continue to thrive and flourish to meet the needs of future generations.
‘Central to that will be issues like rents, rates, planning and empty premises. Ensuring we have a joined up strategic approach to issues like this can only help our town centres thrive.
‘Of course investment is also crucial and we, along with our partner agencies, will use this review to inform future budgets and investments going forward, to make sure we are collectively investing at the right level and in the right places.’
Andy Willox, Scottish policy convenor at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: ‘We look forward to sitting on this group to work out what our 21st century town centres could and should look like.
‘If we want to turn around our towns, then considered action from local and central government, private and public sectors will be required. Independent retailers should always have a place in our communities but we should also consider other ways of bringing employment and enterprise into the centre of our conurbations.
‘What we do know though is that the future of our high streets doesn’t lie in the models of the past. Our shopping habits, living and working habits have changed for good.’
The British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC) has meanwhile called on the prime minister to deliver ‘concerted action’ to enable investment on the UK’s high streets.
BCSC president Peter Drummond said: ‘The Prime Minister’s appointment of Mary Portas was an important step but we strongly believe that Government now needs to take more decisive action to encourage investment in town and city centres. High streets and shopping centres fulfil leisure and community needs as well as retailing ones so constant investment and refreshment is vital, but the private sector needs supportive policy to make it viable.’
He added: ‘We have written to the Prime Minister following last week’s flurry of announcements on further planning reform to outline a number of wider issues that need addressing. Principally, Government must put further pressure on the implementation of a town centres first policy at local authority level. Secondly, a more widespread and effective use of tax increment financing to deliver hundreds of millions of pounds of local infrastructure must be urgently considered.’
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