What does the future hold for our town centres?

The first ever World Towns Leadership Summit was recently hosted in Edinburgh by Scotland’s Towns Partnership where 200 urbanists, planners, economists and practitioners from around the world discussed how to make our towns and city districts fit for purpose in a fast moving 21st century.  As a result, a new World Towns Framework has been published with the aim to provide a shared vision for collaboration across the public, private and social sectors to strengthen urban centres.

STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice shares his views on the summit here and the Framework can be viewed here.  Bellair’s Alistair Campbell wasn’t able to attend the Summit but he’s delighted that a topic which is very close to his heart is now on a global stage – here Alistair shares his thoughts on the topic of town centre regeneration. 

When Bellair bought the buildings that are now home to Falkirk Business Hub over four years ago, my vision for creating a business hub inlooking up at entrance to Falkirk Business Hub
the heart of the town centre was not taken at all seriously, and in some quarters almost ridiculed!  After just three years of operation, we are now 92% occupied, have a vibrant community with 37 tenants and have supported numerous businesses to growth.  Some would say I was brave, others perhaps consider me foolhardy, but perhaps it is these “alternative approaches” that will make a difference to our town centres?

Town centres can and should be vital social centres for communities – driving economic growth, supporting small business and entrepreneurial thinking and central to a town’s development.

There have been countless reports, feasibility studies and action plans carried out, stretching back over many years about town centre problems and potential solutions and now we have even had a World Summit and a World Towns Framework.  Although there is merit in elements of all of these reports and I’m delighted that the discussions at the Summit and the newly produced framework have highlighted town centre regeneration on a global scale, I am yet to be convinced that anyone has presented a definitive and workable plan that actually deals with the major issues that need to be addressed if our towns and High Streets are to be fit for purpose going forward.

In my view, in reality no one has been brave enough to tackle the key issue:  our towns were fit for purpose up to and including the middle of last century however, and particularly over the last fifty years or so, they have gradually ceased to be relevant.

This is particularly the case in the 21st century, where it seems that many issues are conspiring against town centre health, including out of town retail, online shopping, social change etc.  Of course the longer this has gone on, the more the problems have become entrenched and therefore resolving them has become a much bigger task.  We now have a huge problem that will not be fixed by aspirations of collaboration or by tinkering about the edges, – big problems require big solutions!

I don’t profess to have the answers to this, but I do believe there are positives approaches which could be taken which would help arrest town centre decline and in some ways start to turn matters around!

Falkirk Town Centre street marketIn a report produced earlier this year by the British Property Federation, there is a recommendation for Town Centre Investment Zones: the pooling of property assets into an investment vehicle that allows the stock to be adapted, the mix of occupiers to be curated, the investment to be asset managed and the destination to be more effectively marketed.  I broadly support this proposal, particularly as it would be commerciality that would determine the success of the proposals and not bureaucratic tinkering!  In my view, this approach requires some bold action in the assembly of property and I think that the report’s recommendation that compulsory purchase should be considered as a last resort should actually be seen very much as a vital tool to make the Town Centre Investment Zones happen.

The report also highlights the need for redefining town centres and looking at new uses for both core and fringe areas, bringing housing, education or open space to support commercial offers and I’m very much in favour of zoning uses within town centres.  For me, town centres should not be home to collections of charity shops, nail bars, tattoo parlours and hot food outlets.  Of course there is a place for and a demand for these businesses, however it should not be within the town centre, at the cost of other uses.

We need to consider how to recreate our town centre to make it attractive, placing it back on an equal competitor platform with out of town shopping centres.  Looking at what attracts people to the malls and trying to create, within the limitations that town centres have, as attractive a shopping experience as possible is difficult but not impossible!  For example could there be a canopy provided over the High Street or the creation of a large multi storey car park immediately adjacent, or the provision of street security – all big ticket items that could be achieved with the right approach and investment.

I also believe that we need to once again invest in town centres as the heart of communities – creating the right mix of facilities which build a neighbourhood.  The World Towns Framework highlights the “Social Value of Place” – the recognition that the value of public places for communities needs to be seen as a distinct asset, with the planning and creation of spaces which host future local routines, create collective man drinking coffee at a street side cafe during the eveningmemories and nurture shared values.

The development of mixed tenure housing within a town centre would for example, create footfall for twilight trading.  Student accommodation, social housing, private dwellings and short term rentals could all coexist within town centres, perhaps in conjunction with a hotel/hostel etc to help to encourage people to return to the heart of the community, make it a daily habit and take pride in their town.

One aspect of most town centre reports that I do disagree with is the focus on the creation of larger spaces created from joining smaller uneconomic shop units etc.  This works to a degree, however I believe that there is a need to provide a spectrum of relevant properties of differing sizes and relevance to suit both local and national traders and businesses.

Supporting small business and entrepreneurial thinking is key to the development of successful business communities and I am pleased that shop fronts in Falkirk Town Centrethe Framework recognises that local business ownership is central to ensuring resilient growth and place success.  The development of combined business space which can be shared by start-ups or growing businesses is, in my view, essential.  We need to give the next generation of business people as much support as possible through flexible license agreements, rate free units, mentoring and investment, to help them all grow in to the future of sustainable town centres.

Who is responsible for driving forward initiatives such as the Town Centre Investment Zones is still open for debate – whether it can be driven by Government at a local, Scottish or national level, I’m not sure.  The Scottish Government introduced the Town Centre First Principle to encourage the public sector to continue to invest in town centres and help communities to thrive.  This when coupled with the development of the World Towns Framework as a Public-Private-Social vision, can only be positive, but neither are prescriptive or provide ownership.  I strongly believe that the private sector needs to be integrated within this, so that visions can be successfully delivered.

I am currently investigating some further regeneration projects which take on the principles of what I am advocating here and look forward to updating you on their progress as and when I can.  If you are passionate on this subject and are keen to share your views, please get in touch – I’d be happy to discuss matters with you for the good of future regeneration in Falkirk.

Alistair Campbell OBE is owner and director of Bellair (Scotland) Ltd which owns and operates a number of business centre developments including Falkirk Business Hub.  Bellair has a number of plans under development for further regeneration which we hope will continue to drive investment in town centres as engines for economic growth.

images courtesy of www.brianvass.co.uk