The pandemic has encouraged many people to embrace localism, the chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership has said.
While the pandemic has put a squeeze on many high street businesses, Phil Prentice said a new review of Scotland’s town centres highlights the need to seize on enthusiasm for the “spirit of localism”.
Town centres have been in decline for years, but the arrival of the coronavirus amplified problems, resulting in a number of High Street names – such as Debenhams and Topshop – facing closures.
As a response, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government Aileen Campbell set up a review group, chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks at the University of Stirling, to review the Town Centre Action Plan.
Phil Prentice has said the review has shown how Scotland could become more sustainable and inclusive, post-pandemic.
Mr Prentice said: “The publication of this report marks a significant milestone in the mission to make Scotland’s towns and town centres stronger, greener, healthier and fairer places.
“I hope its recommendations prove thought-provoking and a significant catalyst for change.
“These should be critical considerations for decision-makers at all levels in shaping a post-pandemic Scotland that’s more sustainable and inclusive.
“The pandemic has led to everyone living more of their lives locally. By embracing the spirit of localism which has been so important to the last year and acting on the review group’s recommendations, we can build a stronger future which has towns at its heart.”
The report made three recommendations for the future development of town centres.
Firstly, the group have proposed that the role of the town centre should be strengthened by working with the local community to develop town centres, focusing on local accessibility to services.
Secondly, the group recommended that the Scottish Government should review the current tax, funding and development systems, by looking at non-domestic rates and the possibility of a digital tax.
The third recommendation was that town centres should continue to be funded and even have that funding expanded.
The report concluded by saying: “Town centres are a core part of Scottish life.
“They are a sustainable heart of a community providing opportunities to live, work and enjoy on a more equitable and socially fair basis, enhancing wellbeing and a sense of community and place.
“The current narrative is too often about the decline or death of the town centre. This is not the case in many of our towns but we can do more and better for all towns and all in their communities.”
Mr Prentice added: “We are beginning to see the unfortunate economic casualties of Covid-19.
“The crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the need for us to reimagine how we best use our town centres to sustain jobs, build community wealth, embrace digital opportunities, tackle climate change and so much more. This work must happen at pace.
“Scotland is widely recognised for its innovative and progressive work to support its towns. There will be great interest across the UK in this report and the actions that follow from it.”
David Lonsdale from the Scottish Retail Consortium said they had concerns that the report “reheated ideas for extra taxes”.
He said: “With one in every seven shops lying empty there also needs to be a concerted effort to reduce the cost of operating in our town centres for retailers and other businesses.
“We’ll consider the detail of this new report. However, we do have concerns about the plethora of frankly reheated ideas for extra taxes and levies it suggests.
“Much of it reads like a charter for extra cost and complexity, pushing up costs on consumers, on firms, and on an already overtaxed retail industry.
“For example, business rates are already levied on car parking spaces, so introducing a new tax on out-of-town parking spaces could see these taxed twice, or potentially even three times if councils use their existing powers to introduce workplace parking levies.”