The fortunes of town centres can be turned around by concentrating development in their streets, according to Malcolm Fraser. The leading Edinburgh architect has chaired the Scottish Government’s review of town centre policy.
Towns are “not just about shopping” – they’re also about parks, leisure and culture. Bringing footfall into these other places is the best way to support shopping. They have a much more “well rounded” offer than out-of-town shopping centres.
Fraser thinks that a lot of regeneration is about central government telling local government what will happen and local government telling local people what they will get. “We’re very interested in doing it the other way up,” he remarked.
A pragmatic attitude is also needed. Mary Portas’ review of town centres in England has 28 “very eye-catching” initiatives but each one needed an Act of Parliament and/or a large number of people to deliver them.
Many groups in Scotland were talking about town centres but he resists the idea of a “narrative” for towns – action was needed now and towns did not need to be told what their narrative was. “We need to do things that assist them, and let them work out their own narrative,” Fraser commented.
The review group made a major call for bringing homes – particularly family homes – back into town centres. The public perception is often that families must live in the suburbs but that’s a “very American” concept that does not need to be adopted in Britain.
“The best footfall for town centres is residential footfall: people who live there, shop there, look after the place at night, care about the place,” he commented. “The worst town centres are the ones that feel absolutely empty after six o’clock.”
Governments traditionally plan new social housing on the edge of towns – on expensive sites – but many people who need that service are young married couples, single people and older people.
“They don’t necessarily want to live in the suburbs,” he said. “Quite a proportion of them would feel taken away from the heart of their community. Some of them don’t have cars. They’ll have to buy a car, go round the ring road [and] shop at the Asda.”
Town centres across the UK offer thousands of readily available small flats above shops. In the past, all of the value was in the shop so there was no point in developing these flats. The falling value of shops now means that there is “value upstairs when people are still thinking about how to get value back downstairs.”
Fraser’s report was published in July and the Scottish Government is due to announce its response this month. He has found “tremendous buy-in” when presenting his findings to professional groups and therefore hopes that the Government will deliver.