Jim Metcalfe, practice & development manager with Carnegie UK Trust
To many, it seems that our Scottish town centres are in a terminal spiral of decline.
Boarded up shops, rundown streets, vandalism, disinterested consumers moving online and disengaged decision makers are combining with recession to snuff out interest in the towns in which we live.
But this is a very one-sided view. There are, in fact, lots of people working hard to find new purpose and prosperity for Scottish towns, and increasingly the old divisions between commercial, political and voluntary sector town leaders are being abandoned in that effort.
In my role at Carnegie UK Trust I was recently asked to participate in the opening symposium for the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review process along with representatives from a range of commercial, governmental and civil society backgrounds.
Chaired by Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser and reporting to Nicola Sturgeon, the review promises a real and radical rethinking of how towns can be nurtured and freed up to rebuild. Its opening meeting certainly bristled with new ideas and approaches.
The Carnegie UK Trust has a long heritage of work on this topic, particularly in respect of enterprise policy, socioeconomic wellbeing and community empowerment, and it is these areas we need to focus on if we are to find joint solutions to these fundamental civic challenges.
It’s very difficult to fix the problems if you don’t know how towns are performing and what they can learn from each other.
We certainly need more comparative data if we are to see how well towns are actually doing, either as trading centres or just good places to live. Towns’ data at the moment is patchy at best and tends to focus too much on employment and retail vacancy statistics.
Given the current austerity measures, it isn’t possible for the public sector to step in and bridge the gap that retailers are leaving behind in every town centre, every day.
We will need to see what third sector support there is in each area and work on forging better partnerships between sectors, sharing the burden to find smarter uses for our civic spaces.
Our young people can be much misaligned when it comes to town centres, but youth enterprise is a great way to encourage regeneration.
We found from our own ‘Enterprising Minds’ research earlier this year (featured in Scottish Business Insider) that many young people associate enterprise and innovation with the bright lights of the cities.
They tend not to associate innovation and business success with town communities. But young entrepreneurs are the best way to reach newer, young consumers and encourage them to make the most of their town centres – we need to think harder about how young entrepreneurs can be cultivated and supported in towns, perhaps through regulatory relaxation as well as the maximisation of flexible empty premises.
We also need to stop people rushing through towns, or using them as a hub to get elsewhere. In too many towns, road systems are still designed for past congestion and traffic flow problems.
This has led to under-used pedestrian centres ringed by high speed bypasses or motorways. By bringing back a multitude of transport options to town centres, involving bikes, cars and pedestrians, combined with lower speed limits and the removal of these one way ‘race tracks’, more potential customers could circulate around town centres, encouraging vacant spaces to be opened up again for productive use.
Of course public transport is an important part of this mix. It is important that these transport gateways communicate a strong message to travellers about the place they have just arrived in, the cohesion and pride of the community and also hints at what may be on offer commercially.
Refreshing transport gateways, for example by turning under used railway stations into social enterprise hubs or popup retail opportunities, is vital to this process.
All of this isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s very easy to write these things down but harder to give civic leaders and strategic transport managers or politicians the courage to really rethink, rather than patch up, our towns strategies.
Increasingly, many areas of civic life – from managing public spaces to providing some community services – will be beyond the budgetary capabilities of local or central authorities.
When citizens clamour for action and resources, local leaders and civil servants are going to have to design community solutions and social partnerships for delivery, rather than just past problems up the chain. They will need to engage business too, in new communities of shared interest.
This will be politically challenging, requiring new and complex development skills all round.
Most importantly, it will call on leaders from across the sectors to work together on the design and delivery of town centre services, on a scale never before seen.
Jim Metcalfe is practice & development manager with Carnegie UK Trust