Healthy Town Centres The Heart Of Thriving Local Economies

This week parliament debated the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Action Plan. When this plan was published back in November I was critical of it, as it lacked ambition and had little to say about walking and cycling.

Read on to see what I had to say in this week’s debate. If you have views on how to improve your local town centre or high street please do get in touch.

Alison

Dalkeith

The town centre first principle—to put the health of town centres at the heart of a thriving local economy—is very welcome. I find it strange that we thought differently in the past and strange that we thought that making anything other than the town centre the most important place for people to shop, meet, socialise and enjoy was a good idea.

I am pleased that we have recognised that the town centres cannot be only about retail, important as that may be. I will come back to retail later. The world has changed and we should not strive to have the town centres of the past. A good mix of places to live, eat, work and shop makes the town centre attractive.

Housing is a key part of the future but a change in the attitude of public bodies is needed. In my region, the old town of Edinburgh community council recently folded after years and years of feeling that the development of the city centre was not about the people who live there, despite the council’s strenuous efforts to try to make it so.

Private rented housing is prevalent in city centres and on high streets. If we want to attract people back there, it is important that tenants’ rights are strengthened and that privately renting tenants get a good deal in the new Housing (Scotland) Bill.

Convenience is essential—the convenience of online retail offers an opportunity for town centre retailers. We could try to support local retailers to get online to enable them to compete with the big retailers offering click and collect. We could make it the norm for people to order some food from the local butcher and greengrocer online during the office lunch break and collect it on their way home from work.

Walking and cycling access to town centres should be given more priority and I have written to the minister about that on behalf of the cross-party group on cycling. As Sarah Boyack said, walking and cycling access is the only action that the Government deems to be long term when it should be designed in from the start of any improvements.

Our train and bus stations need to be welcoming—they need to encourage people into the town centres with clear walking routes to the shops and cafes. Existing out-of-town shopping centres could be seen as park-and-ride facilities to help connect more people with the town centre. Micro-businesses could be supported in town centres through hubs with advice and hot desks.

The amendment that I lodged for the debate talked about local taxation. Devolution is important but not just from Westminster to Holyrood—the real value in devolution of power is from Holyrood to our local councils, which can decide on local solutions. Local authorities should be able to decide the right balance of different taxes to meet their social, environmental and economic needs, in line with the priorities of local voters. Local councillors may decide that their local economies would be bolstered by local sourcing, extension of the living wage or increased employee participation and they should have the ability to promote those options.

The business rates incentivisation scheme exists but it is the poor cousin of true local taxation, which creates genuine economic incentives for local investment in new high-quality employment.

As Sarah Boyack and Margaret McCulloch noted, one size does not fit all. The needs of the high street in Edinburgh are different from those of the high street in Bathgate, Livingston or Linlithgow. Councils are better placed to understand that and should be able to design a business rates regime that works for them. We need to have the confidence to let them do so.

My speech on the Portobello Park Bill

I would like to declare my interest as a City of Edinburgh councillor from 2007-12, a Lothian MSP and as a board member of Fields in Trust.

The controversy over Portobello Park goes back over many years and has been deeply divisive for that community.  During my time as a councillor I was very critical of how the Council had handled the decision as to whether a replacement high school should be built on the common good land that is the park. I visited the school during my time on the Council and shared with parents and young people the real desire to replace the 1960s Portobello High School, which was poorly designed, has not stood the test of time, and has not been adequately maintained. But I also believe that the council has been too dismissive and at times disrespectful of those in the community who did not want the school built on the park. Regardless of where anyone stands on this debate, it is important that they are able to state a position without fear of ridicule or demonisation. Otherwise, the process of moving on after a conclusion is reached becomes so much harder.

Hindsight is a great thing but it is clear that had we all known in 2005 what we know now, a different set of options and potential paths would have been followed.  And a new school would be up and running now and delivering the quality secondary education which our young people need and deserve.

We are now in 2014. The need for a new high school has grown, not diminished.  The condition of the school has worsened.  I am no longer a councillor but, as an MSP, I have to take a position on this private Bill, which is the council’s way of dealing with the common good status of the park that otherwise would prevent a school being built there.  And it is no longer 2005.  Nine years have passed since the Council first made its decision.  The choices we face now, with so much water having flowed under the bridge, are different.  The school has planning permission to be built in the park. A contractor is in place to do so. Community consultation a year ago had a massive response and a fairly hefty majority in favour of building in the park. However many criticisms one can level at the community consultation, it is difficult to argue that the will of the community is other than that which emerged from the consultation.

In the unique circumstances we now find ourselves, and having weighed up all the issues over a long period, I will support the Bill today, while seeking strengthening of assurances and protections concerning the future of the site itself and the compensatory green space.

The issue now is the conditions which are attached to the school being built at one end of the park. What assurances can be secured that new playing fields will always be accessible to the community at large? What certainty is there that the old high school site – once the new St Johns school is built – will be transformed into high quality green and open space to be enjoyed for generations to come?  The Council has moved some distance on these matters; they must now be secured for the long term.  More generally, I want to be sure that, even with a school in place, the land on which the school sits remains common good land and, crucially, that the decision made by MSPs in this case does not establish a precedent for other common good land in Scotland.

I lodged an addendum to today’s motion to see if Parliament would be prepared to take a view at this stage on some of these concerns. While it has not been selected for debate I very much welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the Bill should be amended to strengthen protection of the site’s common good status and I urge committee members to pursue the issues raised as the Bill moves forward.

High quality schooling is essential to the future success of this city, but so is an appreciation of the need to preserve and enhance Edinburgh’s green recreational spaces.  There is an opportunity here to build a positive future in both regards and I trust that in time this city village regains the cohesion which makes it such a special part of the city.