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Scottish Government-commissioned report advocates town centre plans

Words: Roger Milne
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The Scottish Government has been urged to introduce a moratorium on out-of-town development and to back the production of town and town centre plans to be co-produced with communities.

That call emerges in a report from the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, commissioned by ministers last June to evaluate the administration’s Town Centre First approach and refresh it.

The group concludes that a refocus and re-emphasis of the principle would be beneficial. It stresses that towns and town centres should be prioritised in National Planning Framework 4 and called for town centre plans to be developed and implemented with the local community “with a focus and commitment on the wellbeing of people, the planet and the economy”.

The report makes the case for a focus on local accessibility to services and endorsed the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods. It also calls for a greater emphasis on data collection and use at town and town centre levels.

As well as prescribing a moratorium on out-of-town development, the group recommends a government review of current tax, funding, and development arrangements.

This might require amendments to non-domestic rates, a digital tax, amendments to VAT and an out-of-town car-parking space levy.

The group entreats the government to expand demonstration projects in town centres and to align their funding. Projects, it suggests, should be focused on themes such as housing sector incentivisation in town centre, digital skills and use in towns and how to alter ownership, development and use patterns in town centres in a bid to incentivise local businesses, community enterprises and entrepreneurship into local and circular economies.

Another key theme of the report is the need for a climate change response. This would involve building on existing programmes like Climate Action Towns and include microgeneration, retrofitting of town centre buildings and the alteration of space in town centres for active travel, pedestrian movement, green space and social settings. All these measures would enhance the resilience of town centres, contends the report.

The review group, which included the institute’s Irene Beautyman, was chaired by Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling.

RTPI Scotland has welcomed the report and its emphasis that urban planning will play a crucial part in the revival of Scottish town centres.

This was also a key message in the institute’s Plan the World We Need campaign, it stressed.

The RTPI said it was pleased that the report pointed to the use of National Planning Framework 4 as an opportunity to strengthen the position of town centres and has repeated its calls for robust policies promoting 20-minute neighbourhoods to be embedded in national policy.

Barbara Cummins, convenor of RTPI Scotland, said: “Scotland’s town centres are an important part of everyday life. Indeed, this role is becoming even more essential in the post-Covid green recovery given the need for people to have local access to the services and facilities they need.

“Planners can play a vital role in this so I am pleased to see that the expert group has shown how they can be front and centre in helping make this happen.”

In its manifesto, published last week, RTPI Scotland says the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having well-designed, attractive and healthy communities where people have local access to the services, shops and facilities they need no more than a 20 minute walk away.

The institute has also said the review should trigger a strengthening of the town centre-first principle and the place principle and that a strong stance should be taken on stopping future out-of-town development.

Cummins added that the RTPI was keen to explore further the idea of town centre plans but warned that these should complement rather than duplicate existing local development plans or local place plans.

There is also enormous potential, she said, to create open and transparent digital data platforms to help build the evidence base that can support decision-making and allow for information to be shared.

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