Phil Prentice: How to make £50 million for Scotland's town centres go a long way

Contributing to our special week of coverage, Phil Prentice, Chief Officer at Scotland’s Towns Partnership and National Programme Director for Scotland’s Improvement Districts, says that the spending of the new £50 million Scottish Government town centre fund can learn lessons from the last fund of its kind, in 2009

IT’S almost a decade since the Scottish Government’s first major investment in our town centres. The Town Centre Regeneration Fund was launched in 2009, in the teeth of the financial recession. £60 million was invested in a national improvement programme, but in the majority of cases the projects didn’t necessarily have the desired impact.

Councils - who were the main beneficiaries of the fund - either didn’t have enough time to prepare capital programmes or they simply spent most of the cash on the civic realm or propping up traditional retail uses. We now have a clearer picture of retail restructuring, the level of demand for town centre housing, technology led agility in employment markets, community empowerment and the appetite for cleaner and more sustainable environments.

Now that Scottish Government has committed to a further £50 million boost for Scotland’s towns and high streets, an opportunity exists for all the learning in this ensuing decade to provide a platform to ensure the Town Centre Boost Fund could have a real lasting effect.

Whilst £50 million doesn’t sound like a lot, especially once it’s split across 32 local authorities, if used properly it could spark some major improvement.

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We all want our high streets and town centres across Scotland to be vibrant, creative, enterprising and accessible. Town centres are facing challenges as retail patterns change and evolve and it is essential that we support them to become more diverse and sustainable.

 This new fund should also complement wider support for town centres. This includes the work undertaken by Scotland’s Towns Partnership to provide information, support and services for town centre partnerships, including Scotland’s Improvement Districts which deliver local improvements and create platforms for local economic growth.

This new fund should also complement wider support for town centres. This includes the work undertaken by Scotland’s Towns Partnership to provide information, support and services for town centre partnerships, including Scotland’s Improvement Districts which deliver local improvements and create platforms for local economic growth.

And to prove it can be done, just look at Dundee and Falkirk – examples of major renaissance. And we are also seeing the rise and return of independents in smaller towns and cities like Inverness, Stirling, Gourock, Kilmalcolm, Prestwick and Inverurie. Kilmarnock, Dumbarton, Barrhead and Fraserburgh have all benefited from investment in town centre Council HQ’s which in turn have all stimulated much wider investments in each town.

Whilst investments will be based on local priorities, the sort of activity and projects that could create step change would include:

- Projects clearly linked to a long term strategy or vision which demonstrate evidence-based understanding of the current performance, offer and ownership of the town centre, detailing change and the implications of this over recent years. There should be a shared vision for the future of the centre that recognises the changes that high streets and town centres are undergoing and how this can build on the distinctiveness of the place.

- Public-Private-Agency-Community partnership and collaborations to maximise sustainability, impact and leverage (eg joint ventures to repurpose buildings, repurpose shopping centres or create civic and cultural hubs, housing, partnering with agencies such as Housing Associations, Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, Visit Scotland, Sustrans and Transport Scotland).

- Low carbon and sustainable interventions to reduce car usage, improve cycling, leisure and pedestrian links, creation of strategic and high quality greenspace infrastructure, town and city parks.

READ MORE: Don’t mourn the loss of high street shops – replace them with something better, community ownership advocates say

- Strategic digital infrastructure linking businesses, public sector, communities and key stakeholders into shared brand, social media and marketing platforms.

- Acquisition of buildings, land or site assembly in the town centre as part of a strategic vision, particularly where linked to shrinking traditional retail footprints to create new uses such as incubation, smaller niche higher quality independent retail space, events, creative and performance spaces, cultural and heritage assets and town centre housing solutions, as well as identifying the physical infrastructure changes that will contribute to the achievement of the vision and co-funding arrangements to finance this.

- Demonstrate leadership, consultation and engagement and show how these hard investments can lead to softer outcomes by considering human and environmental infrastructure.

It would be good to see some future proofing and innovation emerging over the coming year. Our high streets are always going to be with us at the heart of communities, they’ll just look at bit different and do slightly different things.

Picture courtesy of Bryan Ledgard

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