Scottish Government's Town Centre Action Plan


Few readers will be unaware of the Portas Review, which Mary Portas prepared for the Westminster Government in December 2011. The Review contained recommendations for saving the high street in England and Wales. There was even a follow-up tv series fronted by Portas.

Receiving slightly less media attention was the report prepared by an advisory group headed by "Scotland's Portas" – architect Malcolm Fraser – as part of the Scottish Government's National Review of Town Centres.

The Scottish Government issued their formal response to that report on 7 November.

Content of Response

The response accepts the Portas mantra that town centres need to get back to their roots with a better mix of uses, including residential.

But a variety of key players all need to play their part in effecting change: property owners, retailers, the Treasury, various Scottish Government departments and local authorities. In recognition of that, the formal response is cross-Government, and tends to more of a "nudge" than a "top-down" approach.

There is a lot of focus on "encouraging" people and organisations to do things, for example:

giving local authorities powers to establish Town Centre Investment Zones, using discretionary rates relief to encourage local business;
encouraging entrepreneurship in town centres through an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Framework and through funding available to third sector organisations; and
supporting community-led activity that supports town centres.

Specific actions include:

committing £2m towards a Town Centre Housing Fund – to act as a demonstration project to help bring empty town centre properties back into use as affordable housing; and
creating incentives to bring long term vacant premises back into use, including expanding Fresh Start rates relief – which halves business rates for companies occupying previously empty property – to apply to pubs, hotels and restaurants from April 2014.

And there's one particular commitment which gets only four lines in the response, but could be particularly important in the fight to save Scottish town centres.

The Scottish Government has undertaken to include an updated "town centre first" planning policy and associated "sequential test" in the final Scottish Planning Policy, due for publication in Summer 2014.

It has become evident to many that – to allow town centres to compete with out-of-town developments – clearer guidance needs to be issued to explain when out-of-centre proposals should be altered or reduced in scale so that they can be accommodated within town centres. Will the Scottish Government's undertaking lead to just that clarity appearing?