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"Scotland's Towns Partnership" by Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnerships: Edinburgh meeting of 28 November 2017.

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnerships at the meeting.d

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnerships at the meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2017

The banking crisis of 2008 combined with the growing popularity of out-of-town and online retailing to create a perfect storm for Scotland's town centres, which was the culmination of a long decline over thirty years.

Towns are having to be repurposed since every one has a Unique Selling Point, and the exceptional combination of events in 2014 - the Bannockburn anniversary and Homecoming, the Commonwealth Games, independence referendum and the Ryder Cup - showed Scotland to the world as a vibrant country undergoing renewal from which they could surely benefit.

With widespread interparty support in 2013 the Scottish Government had embraced the concept of Town Centre Action Plans, and Scotland's Towns Partnership came into being to develop ministers' commitment to the Town Centre First principle that there should be a presumption in favour of brownfield development on urban sites before any consideration was given to further greenfield encroachment. Living in town should be promoted by encouraging affordable housing enabling young people to live alongside older generations and thus create balanced communities in which grandparents might more easily help with looking after children.

Medical care should always be located in the town centre, and planning ought to be made more user-friendly, with simplified zones facilitating permitted development. Moves towards community land buyouts and development trusts show a repositioning of Scottish society away from UK practice and towards the Scandinavian experience, while encouragement of the digital economy needs to be less about infrastructure issues like broadband provision and more about providing virtual schools offering apprenticeships in IT skills.

Dealing through trading associations such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the Retail Consortium, Scotland's Towns Partnership seeks to align the programmes of Government so that they may lean in Town Centres' favour. Working alongside developers on demonstration projects and a Cross Party Group to sustain all-party commitment, STP has developed a town centres toolkit, place standards, town audits and charettes that develop consensus.

New mechanisms now being exploited by the Partnership include Business Improvement Districts, Development Trusts and the Community Empowerment Act, and its Unlocking Scottish Places database contains for each town aspects of its attributes and lifestyles across fourteen measures so that no longer might for example the characterful town centre of Barrhead feel itself the poor relation of Newton Mearns which by comparison is maybe just a posh housing estate! Interestingly it is the private sector that is the biggest user of USP, encouraging developers to knock down old industrial premises that are never going to find another use while refurbishing that those that can have a new role.

Town centre audits analyse 253 indicators of a community's health, looking at every property in its centre, and the Herald Media Platform enables towns to raise their profile. The Borders Railway has helped promote collaboration between Borders towns, Kilmarnock has a revitalised station matched by redevelopment of the Johnny Walker Bond as Council offices and of the former distillery site as the new Ayrshire College, and Falkirk has turned round from the days of industrial decline to becoming a tourist destination for the Wheel, the Helix, the Wall and the Steeple.

Scotland's Towns Conferences aim to develop international comparisons, for example with Detroit which has no way back to its past manufacturing greatness but can harness local wealth for targeted renewal schemes, and draw on the Scottish diaspora whose 28 million people worldwide may be susceptible to feelings of nostalgia for the Auld Country. Scotland's Towns Week each autumn brings together awareness of local initiatives, and because Smart Cities are perhaps too big a canvas can project a more intimate message of hopeful example utilising the skills of urban planners, sociologists, environmentalists and experts in citizenship which are making Scotland a world leader, with STP taking its message to Malmo, Kuala Lumpur and Germany.

Scotland's Towns Week 2017 has just concluded, and saw Forres declared to have Scotland's Most Beautiful High Street. The emphasis on digital guidance is assuming greater significance as job insecurity means that increasingly school-leavers find themselves set to be consultants for life. The Business Improvement Districts have made a good start in leveraging additional funds, but will not fulfil their true potential until banks can be persuaded that in order to detoxify their brand they should develop their former High Street branches for community uses. Abellio has sponsored STP in the belief that with investment in the rail network, people arriving at great stations can look forward to Scotland's towns giving them a warm welcome and thus encouraging longer stays.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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