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Parliamentary focus on actions needed to make Scotland’s towns stronger

MSPs have spoken of their determination to ensure that the needs of town centres are put first to secure stronger local economies across Scotland.

And the agenda-setting work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership chair, Professor Leigh Sparks, in helping to realise community and national ambitions was again in firm focus.

The findings of the Scottish Parliament Economy and Fair work Committee’s inquiry into retail and town centres was debated at Holyrood on Tuesday (February 28).

Published earlier this year, it  concluded that Scotland’s planning system needs to be strengthened to ensure no new developments unfairly compete with town centre provision – alongside a rebalancing of the cost of doing business to make town centres more competitive, including how non-domestic rates currently operate to support investment in town centres.

Committee members also said that every town in Scotland should have its own town plan, a long-term strategic vision for the future that recognises the unique nature of towns, their histories and the community that brings them together.

Opening the debate on the report in the Scottish Parliament, Economy and Fair Work Committee chair, Claire Baker told MSPs: “Two years ago, the report of the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, which was led by Professor Leigh Sparks, was published. It made three headline recommendations: include towns and town centres in National Planning Framework 4 and create and implement town plans; review the current tax, funding and development systems; and expand and align funding for demonstration projects in towns and town centres with multi-year revenue and capital funding.

“In April last year, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities responded jointly by publishing a revised Town Centre Action Plan for Scotland. Shortly after, the Scottish Government published its strategy for the retail sector, and a retail industry leadership group was established with responsibility for finalising a delivery plan. At the end of last year, the Scottish Government finalised its National Planning Framework 4.

“The committee welcomes all of those strategies and plans, but it wants to ensure that the ambition in those documents is realised and momentum is maintained through tangible actions, and that there is clear coherence between the different strategies.”

Ms Baker highlighted what the committee had learned from actions being taken in Dumfries, Hamilton, Fraserburgh, Inverurie and Burntisland.

In Hamilton and Inverurie, they looked at the difference Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can make to local areas.

And Ms Baker added: “The committee’s overriding request is that we value our town centres for what they mean to communities and that we deliver policy that supports their ambitions.”

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, responding on behalf of the Scottish Government, agreed that a strategic approach to towns and retail must be focused on long-term actions to secure economic transformation. 

The Minister said: “Transforming our towns and the retail economy is an exciting opportunity to work collaboratively towards the shared purpose of a sustainable wellbeing economy that supports and connects people and places.”

During the debate, cross-party MSPs raised points ranging from taxation, challenges caused by online retailing and planning policies – issues addressed in Professor Sparks’ Town Centre Action Plan and its review. Many were also discussed at roadshows held by Scotland’s Towns Partnership last summer.

Siobhian Brown, who chairs the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Towns and Town Centres, said: “Local authorities have the responsibility for delivering local economic development and local regeneration. The Scottish Government’s town centre action plan can succeed only if it is supported by effective partnership working.

“Town centres will not be transformed overnight. There needs to be an ambitious vision and long-term plan to drive progress, which all parties must be involved in, regardless of whether they form the administration or are in opposition.”

Speaking after hearing submissions, Mr Arthur said many of the challenges facing town centres were reflections of deeper issues in the economy.

Concluding, he said: “I have sought to ensure that our retail strategy, our town centre action plan — which was jointly published with COSLA — and National Planning Framework 4 align with each other.

“The most profound way in which we can influence change for our town centres in the long run, beyond the immediate interventions that we make here and now, is to rewire how our economies operate at local and regional levels. Community wealth building is key to delivering that.”

You can watch the full debate below: