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.
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.