Let’s be ambitious for our towns

A revisiting of a town centre action plan – the original published in 2013 – was launched today, to a fanfare of presentations by, among others, Scottish Government communities secretary, Aileen Campbell MSP, who commissioned the work, and Stirling University’s Professor Leigh Sparks, who chaired it. Another presentation was by Phil Prentice, chief officer at Scotland’s Towns Partnership, here…

A NEW Future for Scotland’s Towns gives us a clear steer, a potential long-term route map out of the COVID-19 pandemic and it is also a simple, compelling, yet ambitious set of recommendations which could bring significant and positive change.

It’s important to remember that we are trying to undo a significant amount of decline, but progress has been made. Quite simply, we hollowed out our town centres – we pushed out housing, we then built in far too much retail, and we shoved too much other stuff to the edge. We now have no other option but to build out from the core.

This review [of the 2013 town centre action plan], and the policy framework that has been established these last seven or eight years, gives us the capacity and the levers to do that.

Other parts of the UK are following and replicating many of our policies and there is even recognition, at United Nations level, that Scotland is headed in the right direction.

We now have our policy framework right; we just need to make the right decisions on the ground.

I have the privilege of being able to take a bird’s eye view of what’s going on across the country. And, particularly at local government level, I am seeing some fantastic approaches emerging. 

COVID-19 has created an intervention in time and this town centre action plan review is a straightforward and simple call to action – a marker to challenge both the UK and Scottish governments, as well as the wider industry and the public sector: to support and enable communities to tackle the systemic imbalances, and to deal with the ‘elephants in the room’. 

Importantly, our town and cities centres should be seen as showroom for all of our priorities. Towns belong to everybody, certainly no political class.

And so much of what we are trying to do, as a nation, can be showcased in our town and city centres.

These include: building a climate-friendly, net-zero future, better digital, better housing for our young and our ageing demographic, plus rain gardens, tree canopies, pop-up parks and bio-diversity, mixing ‘blue’ and ‘green’ technologies, new jobs, community wealth-building and the ’20-minute neighbourhood’.

Scotland is a nation of towns and it is also a nation of invention. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on some of our fragilities, it has also highlighted many of our strengths: of communities coming together, local leaderships protecting people who are vulnerable, and fiefdoms setting aside their differences and discovering a whole new sense of shared pride, place and identity.

And these strengths are the qualities we’ll need as we move through the pandemic and into recovery.

The ‘Scotland Loves Local‘ campaign has sown a seed that has connected with Scotland’s people, reminding everybody of what we already have, the value of localism, our sustainable environments, and just how fragile our eco-systems are. It’s our DNA, it’s who we are. 

So, this struggle belongs to all of us. Our towns, cities and neighbourhoods belong to the folk who populate them, and also those people who work or have businesses there; not to overseas pension funds or absentee landlords.

Over the last year, the places impacted less harshly by COVID, or are recovering most quickly, are where the public, private, community and third sectors are all working to their strengths in an honest and open way.

We’ve done it before and we will do it again. When Timex and NCR left Dundee, the folks there didn’t let go, they rebuilt – the waterfront, the universities, the V&A, a desire to become Europe’s leading small ‘green city’. 

Falkirk, over the last decade, has transformed itself – with Helix Park, the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel, Falkirk Delivers and potentially ground-breaking town centre investments to follow over the next couple of years.

Paisley, meanwhile, is harnessing the energy from its albeit unsuccessful City of Culture bid four years ago, to rebuild a town centre connecting culture and heritage to its community and beyond.

Ayr and Kirkcaldy too are undergoing a significant renaissance.

The list goes on.

And it is often communities that take the lead, such as The Stove Network in Dumfries, artists in Kirkcudbright, crafters in West Kilbride and the business improvement district, Bid4Oban.

These, and many more, reveal the art of the possible, not least when you have strong leadership and local collaboration.

We don’t need to look too far for inspiration and nor do we need to wait for permission.

So, as we move towards a new a Parliament [the Scottish Parliament elections scheduled for May], the Scottish Government has already committed significant, indeed record, investments to support this drive – from housing and regeneration to active travel and climate, and a place-based investment programme which will encourage the ‘new collaboratives’.

Five years ago, I could go into a room and ask, “Who’s got an issue with their town?” And every hand would go up, and then every hand would go down, when I would then ask, “Well, who’s going to hang around to help?”.

Now I can ask those same two questions, and everybody is willing to help.

So, let’s be ambitious, be brave, break the silos and do the right things. All of us can play a role.

Phil Prentice is chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership.

Picture: Portobello High Street. Picture credit: PlaceDesignScotland

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