Town centre regeneration - diverse approaches, common themes
The emphasis given to the opportunities opened up by City Region Deals – and the widely-accepted view that we need to look strategically, and with real ambition, at the role of Scotland’s cities as engines of economic growth (explored at some length in the Scotland’s Urban AGE report which we commissioned last year) – can tend to obscure the significance of town centres. But town centres are a critically important part of the overall jigsaw; put simply, we will not achieve the outcomes that we are looking for if we ignore the need to address, with equal focus, the challenges faced by Scotland’s town centres.
In basic terms, the attractions of urban living (particularly for young people), the shift to online shopping, the shrinkage in public sector property portfolios and a range of other factors are draining life from our town centres – and if we fail to take concerted action to refocus town centres, we risk a future in which cities may be thriving but our town centres have entered a downwards spiral of decline, dereliction and social problems which will be near-impossible to reverse.
On 30 April, I participated in a really interesting workshop organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership – focussing on structures and governance to support town centre regeneration. Structures and governance are of course my day job – but I do recognise (and in some cases, endorse) the view that there can be too much emphasis on structures and too little action. In the field of town centre regeneration, though, I firmly believe that structures do matter; the reality is that the level of public funding available in the foreseeable future for truly transformational work on town centres will be limited - so the role of structures (in the widest sense), in bringing together public, private and third sector stakeholders as well as local communities in a common effort to revitalise town centres, is absolutely critical.
But what are the most effective structures, in any given situation? At a practical level, how can local businesses, landowners, developers, housing providers, local communities, public authorities and others – fired up to turn round a failing town centre – make an informed choice on what kind of structure will effect real and lasting change?
That was the topic that I tackled in my own presentation at the seminar – outlining the myriad of approaches that have been applied to date, from dedicated town centre regeneration vehicles through to informal strategic forums. A key point which I emphasised was the need to take account of existing (and emerging) agendas round community empowerment, the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, participatory budgeting, a refreshed Improvement District (formerly BID) model and others. And the main part of my presentation was about drawing out what seemed to me to be common themes which can help to shape structures that do work, and governance arrangements that can give real confidence to both private sector investors and grant funders - as well as avoiding the traps of token consultation and ineffective talking-shops.
The business community – including commercial landlords, housebuilders and others with a keen interest in town centres – have a degree of scepticism (some would say, healthy scepticism) regarding the ability of multi-stakeholder structures to deliver real change. But the need is critical – now is the time for the business community in that wider sense (not just struggling local retailers) to engage in the debate, and help to shape the approaches that will restore vibrancy, and secure a strong and sustainable future, for town centres across Scotland.
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