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STP Chair Leigh Sparks: Scotland’s Towns – A Decade of Learning (Hopefully)

Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling and Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, suggests how we can learn from recent experience to make the most of the Scottish Government’s £50m Town Centre Boost Fund. Originally published on Stirling Retail.

As this post is published (3 April) I am presenting at an event held to formally launch Scotland’s Town Centre Boost Fund of £50m. The Town Centre Fund has been set up by Scottish Government and COSLA and aims “to support councils to ensure their high streets are more diverse, sustainable and successful in the face of changing and evolving retail patterns”.

£50m sounds a lot, but once it is divvied up amongst the 32 local authorities, it is not really (though it might be leveraged or be followed by more in future years).  It is thus doubly important to spend it wisely, both as public money and scarce resource.

We have of course been here before.  In 2009 the Town Centre Regeneration Fund pumped £60m of capital into our town centres. Best characterised as ‘a lesson in how not to spend public money’ one can ask whether the TCRF had a lasting effect?

But over the last decade the towns landscape has been transformed.  2009 was a time of CSPP’s Towns Group, the emergence of BIDs and the onset of austerity.  It was followed quite quickly in Scotland by the National Review of Town Centres and the establishment of Scotland’s Towns Partnership to agitate, collate and amplify the towns work going on and to help deliver the Town Centre Action Plan.

The tangible activities of STP have resulted in a series of tools and approaches, including USP, Towns toolkit, demonstration projects and so on.  Others have brought developments such as the Place Standard, the Town Centre First and Place Principle and more recently the wider concept of Scotland and Community Improvement Districts.

All this has been done in the teeth of an austerity programme, financial issues including for local authorities, continued and accelerating retail restructuring and wider sectoral, social and economic changes.  Yet, at this point I am probably the most cheered about the situation in a decade.  I feel strongly that across Scotland we are seeing a focus on locality and local assets (people and physical), a recognition of the complexity of places and thus the desire for and need to work in partnership (including public and private as well as social).  There is a sense from the ground up that we can deliver change and we are demonstrating this place by place.

We seem to have learned the lessons that we need data and discussion to drive understanding about towns/places (and not prejudices), that various models (public, private, social, entrepreneurial) can be used to drive fundamental change (i.e. no one size, top down, fits all), that multi-functional places need to be built around assets, people and events and that we need all to be working and pulling together.  A local focus and energy is critical.

So then, in the light of this uncharacteristic optimism, why am I a little nervous about the Town Centre Boost Fund?  I just hope that these lessons have really been learned and that this £50m gets spent wisely.  We need councils to use this money to stimulate wider investment in the selected towns .As Phil Prentice, CEO of Scotland’s Towns has said, we do not need more hanging baskets, pavement repairs and street furniture.  £50m can never solve the situation our towns and places face, but it can spark change, by focusing on projects that are:

  • Linked to a long term strategy or vision based on local distinctiveness
  • Maximising sustainability, impact and leverage by working with partners and repurposing spaces
  • Based on low carbon and sustainable interventions and strategic digital infrastructure
  • Acquiring assets to create new uses
  • That consider human and environmental infrastructure as well as hard investments.

So a plea; can we please look to the wider and longer term with this £50m and not to prettification or trying to save retailing?  If it looks as though it is working other funds may be generated from a variety of sources so this is really vital, place by place.