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The Big Read: What can we do to save Scotland’s towns?

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In the period since the millennium, however, the story of Scotland’s town and city centres has been one of steady and gradual decline, with the rise of online shopping arguably doing more to undermine the vibrancy of centres than any other factor.

As more and more of us began to enjoy the convenience – and prices – offered by increasingly dominant online players such as Amazon, retailers steadily reduced their presence on the high street and in shopping centres.

Many big names, from Woolworths to Debenhams, disappeared entirely, having found themselves unable to maintain large portfolios of bricks and mortar stores in the face of fierce competition and changing shopping patterns.

However, the dawn of the internet and society’s embrace of e-commerce are not the sole causes of our current high street woes. Experts point to failings in planning policy that have allowed huge retail and leisure destinations to spring up, taking footfall away from traditional urban centres to purpose-built locations out of town.

By the start of 2020 many town and city centres around Scotland were already feeling pressure from this structural change but that pressure was ramped up to a degree previously unimaginable with the outbreak of Covid and subsequent introduction of lockdown restrictions, which turned our high streets into desolate wastelands.

While the pandemic has thankfully passed, it has taken a heavy toll on the high street. The scars of lockdown are all too clear in the litany of vacant units that line so many Scottish town and city centres and in statistics that show footfall has still to return to pre-pandemic levels. The latter is widely attributed to the continuation of “hybrid” working patterns, which means office staff are continuing to spend much of their working weeks at home, and not spending money in towns.

The Herald: East Kilbride, 1959

The past 18 months have also seen UK consumers come under enormous pressure from the cost-of-living crisis, which was driven to a large extent by the surge in energy prices, and the steady increase in interest rates since December 2021. Many people have not seen their earnings keep pace with inflation, and with the price of everything having rocketed, simply do not have the same amount of disposable income to spend in shops or bars and restaurants.

At the same time, the costs facing businesses have risen sharply, making it even more difficult for them to keep the lights on. Indeed, factors such as higher labour and energy costs and lower footfall have been cited as a host of well-established companies have failed.

The hospitality sector in the west of Scotland, for example, was left reeling when Chardon d’Or, the popular restaurant owned by celebrated chef Brian Maule, fell into administration in August, which was followed closely by the failure of luxury hotel Mar Hall in Renfrewshire.

Meanwhile, on the retail side we recently saw the demise of Wilko, the long-established homeware retailer that collapsed with the loss of thousands of jobs.

READ MORE: Bold plans for Scotland’s new towns should be embraced

“The greatest challenge is town and city centres are having to adapt in tumultuous economic times, for example to changes in shopping behaviour and the amount customers’ have to spend,” said David Lonsdale, director of The Scottish Retail Consortium.

“It’s akin to converting a sailing boat to a speedboat in the middle of a storm. Shops will only survive with the patronage of the public and the exodus of commuters during the pandemic hasn’t fully recovered.

“What is needed from government is a coordinated series of policy initiatives to first stabilise the economy, drive economic growth, and apply a coherent approach towards policies that affect retail destinations. That means avoiding any further raids on consumers purses and wallets, keeping down the cost of doing business in retail destinations and ultimately reducing it, and deferring or thinking again about burdensome regulatory interventions.”

Nowhere are the strains of urban commercial life more evident than in Glasgow city centre, where the struggle to bounce back from the pandemic has been well documented. People have routinely expressed concern about the cleanliness of the streets and, in some areas, the safety of the environment, while the multitude of empty units lends an air of depression to once-proud thoroughfares.

Stuart Patrick, the chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, said that the Covid legacy of hybrid working was the main reason why footfall in the city had still to recover fully to its pre-Covid level, notably on week days. But he highlighted other issues, such as the condition of street furniture and pavements which, allied to vacant shops and boarded up units, are “all adding up to a general sense that the city is not in the best condition”.

He also pointed to concerns about transport network, which he said was key to the “aspirations” of the city’s night-time economy.

READ MORE: Scotland tourism: Key industry on rocky road to recovery

“That is such an important part of what the city centre has traditionally been,” Mr Patrick said. “When we look at the post-pandemic travel patterns, bus is back to maybe 90 per cent of where were pre-pandemic, but it is trains that are still good bit off. The consequence of online [shopping] and hybrid working, look and feel, and the reliability of transport, these are all issues we are very conscious need to be tackled for Glasgow city centre.”

While it would be easy to be despondent about this state of affairs, considerable thought, energy, and funds are being invested to try and secure a brighter future for Scotland’s town and city centres.”

Following the collapse into administration of the owner of East Kilbride Shopping Centre last November, a £100 million masterplan designed to radically reimagine the destination was announced in September by Scoop Asset Management.

Scoop was drafted in by administrators to create a plan to rejuvenate the town.

The project, which seeks to “redefine” how East Kilbride functions as a town, would involve demolishing more than one third of the existing shopping centre, making way for new homes, a hotel and a civic space. This “vision” has been brought to life by ThreeSixty Architecture, which recently devised similar blueprints for Glasgow’s “Golden Z”, Paisley, Clydebank, Inverness, and Falkirk, and is currently working on briefs for Fort William, Hamilton and Dumbarton town centres.

Alan Antony, managing director of ThreeSixty, said: “What really gets us excited is a failing shopping centre. This represents opportunity and hope for a town; it is under one ownership, at its lowest value and of sufficient scale to introduce new uses that can catalyse the regeneration of a whole centre.

READ MORE: Scotland’s troubled high streets: Dark days lie in store

“This is the opportunity to reverse the original move; take the remaining occupiers to the edge to face the street and provide a development platform to introduce residential, hotel, health services, new (or rediscovered) routes and public space.

“Importantly, the scale is more likely to be attractive to investors. The repurposing of these large struggling behemoths is at the core of most of the projects we are working on in town (and city) centre regeneration.”

Asked what factors are needed for town centres to thrive, Mr Antony said: “Where physical retail has retreated out of town or into the electronic ether, we need new footfall generators and attractors. We need cultural and leisure offers, people-facing council services and healthcare facilities right in the centre.

“We always say to councils that they need to be bloody minded and completely unrelenting on this and push for any public purse investment to be town centre first (for example NHS, education providers, transport providers).

“Is it not also a good idea to also put these services where they are most democratically and universally accessible?”

Mr Antony added there were also opportunities for a new kind of tenant to occupy town centres. “The retreat of the clone chains also leaves space for a town or city to celebrate its uniqueness. This often manifests itself through independent retail, creative industry and community led enterprises,” he explained.

“We have been surprised by the level of demand for these both in regional towns and in city centres. This needs support though; it’s not high return so doesn’t readily attract investment by traditional property/ landlord funds, yet we have seen successful interventions, led by local feet-on-the ground operators who understand place.

“The mix of uses is the key – they feed off each other and create the complexity, variety, and unique identity that we love in a successful town centre. And guess what? It really benefits retail.”

However, attracting investors to regional town centres is not easy.

“A lot of town centre plans are great and have well thought out ambitions, but they don’t have adequate government or private sector backing when drawn up,” said Stephen Bibby, head of capital markets at Cushman & Wakefield in Scotland. “Councils generally do a good job in encouraging development, but clearly bolder policies need to take place to encourage the businesses to relocate into the town centres, be it through larger grants or incentives, and more living sectors (residential, senior living and student) – also, to bring in council and government operations to help regenerate the town centres through redevelopment and occupancy.”

Mr Bibby added: “Most larger investors, such as UK institutions, are concentrating on Glasgow and Edinburgh, leaving property companies or local investors being the main source of investment in town centres.

“Grants or co-investment from government bodies can accelerate change, but in order to make sustainable town centres investment should be where long-term demand is and in the main this is from the living sectors.”

Although provincial shopping malls and city centres have much in common, chief among which is the universal challenge presented by the gradual decline of “bricks and mortar” retailing, they also face different dilemmas.

For example, while in East Kilbride there is the opportunity to almost start over again, in Glasgow there is the opportunity to revive a whole host of heritage buildings.

Property entrepreneur Chris Stewart, whose Love Loan hotel and residential project near George Square in Glasgow will involve the revitalisation of listed buildings and the construction of new ones, said: “We need to see the Scottish Government supporting developers and local authorities in focusing on regeneration plans where they can bring disused sites and buildings back into use.”

He also noted: “We need only look to cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool to see what’s possible when government – national and local – and developers work together from the outset. External investment is also essential and available, particularly [from] overseas – there should be a shared determination between developers and our public sector partners to be proactive, ambitious, and imaginative in securing it.”

Some excitement, and indeed controversy, has been generated in Glasgow by Land Securities’ radical plans to knock down Buchanan Galleries, a shopping mall barely over 20 years old, and replace with it with new residential accommodation, offices, a hotel, hospitality and retail space in its place. The continued expansion of the St Enoch Centre by Sovereign Centros has, meanwhile, been welcomed. But while the level of private sector investment being put into these projects can be seen as a major vote of confidence in the city, they cannot drive the revival of Glasgow alone.

“These on their own won’t do the kind of repurposing we need for those empty spaces of Sauchiehall Street, or the upper offices of St Vincent Steet,” explained Stuart Patrick at Glasgow Chamber.

“That kind of change is going to need additional interventions of some form. But I guess the confidence that we will get from seeing Land Sec and Sovereign Centros making those investments will be very helpful in demonstrating what is coming.

“We have already quite a substantial number of projects that are on the ground happening at the moment, with Drum Properties’ Candleriggs development on Argyle Street, Chris Stewart’s Love Loan development just off George Square on George Street, and the Bruntwood Scitech’s development at Met Tower, where they have done most of the demolition work for the back building behind the Met Tower.

“Those are all projects that are part of that repurposing already happening. It is not that we are just awaiting for Buchanan and St Enoch to come through, it is already beginning to happen.”

Asked what “interventions” could be made to incentivise the repurposing of older properties, Mr Patrick said changing how refurbishment projects are treated in terms of value-added tax (VAT) was “one of the asks at UK Government level”.

He went on: “I think we are also keen to ask whether there is an alternative to what used to be the business premises renovation allowance that was used between 2007 and 2017.

“That helped to bring some of the older buildings into hotel use,” Mr Patrick added, highlighting the development of Hotel Indigo on Glasgow’s Waterloo Street as an example.

“Can we do the same with a different end use? Could we even do it with residential? Could there be allowances to make that happen?

“We are also interested in whether the Scottish Government can use its grant subsidy to schemes to support exemplar conversion projects, particularly in some of the older buildings, the Victorian buildings where some of the big challenges arise in the costs involved in making those conversions happen, especially given the increasing expectations for net zero retrofitting and so forth.

“There is a variety of different mechanisms that we would like to explore, and I know at the Scottish Government that debate is happening.

“The city council has been pretty proactive in exploring those policy options. It has its own contributions to make to that, particularly around planning flexibilities. Some of the challenges in doing a conversion come down to the constraints involved in planning expectations.

“All three different layers of government have a role to play in providing the right kind of environment that would bring private sector money in to do it.

“At the moment, all the housing and residential work that is going on in the city centre is demolition and new build.”

It is often argued that encouraging more residential development within town and city centres is crucial to their future prosperity.

James Blakey, planning director at Moda, which is developing build-to-rent apartments in Glasgow and Edinburgh, highlighted the need to ‘prioritise social infrastructure, including dentists, doctors and parks’ in urban areas as crucial in this regard”.

He said: “Key to creating and, importantly, maintaining vibrant city centres is prioritising accessible and well-considered social infrastructure.

“If we want to get people living in the city centre, we must provide them with the tools to do so. Access to excellent transport, healthcare services and schools are hugely important to creating a desire for people to remain in or relocate to city centres.

“People need choice and affordability that will help to create higher footfall and spend, which in turn helps to support retail and leisure businesses in town and city centres.”

A similar argument is made by Graham McNeil, land director at Cala Homes (West). The housebuilder recently established a new office on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, in an area that falls under the city council’s Avenues street revitalisation programme.

Mr McNeil said investment in this kind of infrastructure, which encourages safer pedestrian and cycle links, can “make a telling difference and serve as the catalyst for businesses to invest”.

“A successful place is a safe, resilient, diverse, and economically active community,” he said.

“While retail absolutely has its place, the key is to deliver mixed usage where one class of use supports the other – from education, housing, food and drink, leisure and entertainment to offices, the arts, open green spaces, and public realm.

“It’s about balance and making sure that early infrastructure investment is properly scoped, communicated and delivered to achieve transformative outcomes.

“Bringing life and vibrancy back into the urban centre will require a joined-up, strategic approach.”

Meanwhile, one leading academic told The Herald that the changes needed to revive the fortunes of Scotland’s urban centres must be bold and turn current thinking on its head.

Leigh Sparks is professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling and author of A New Future of Scotland’s Towns in 2021, which made a series of recommendations on how to reinvigorate the high streets. Some of those recommendations have been implemented; for example changes to the planning system that make it more difficult for out-of-town centres to be built.

However, Mr Sparks declared that said the “underlying causes of the problems in towns and city centres are not really being tackled” and believes a fundamental shift in approach is required from all concerned.

“There are a few things at play here,” Mr Sparks said.

“The first is that we spent 50 years-plus destroying our town centres, so there is a long-term issue here and we need to take long-term decisions and politicians of all ilk struggle with that because of the way our politics play out.

“Secondly, in some of the areas, non-domestic rates – business rates in England – are the classic example.

“There is an edifice and an approach which guarantees (local authorities) a fixed some of money, and the challenges of altering that are really quite significant.

“It is very easy for me to write ‘sort out business rates, change VAT (value-added tax), stick an online tax in’. The realities of delivering that are somewhat more complex.

“It requires a lot of people to realise we need governmental change, organisational change, and personal change if we are going to meet the challenges of town centres, climate change and all of the rest of the things we are struggling with. And so all of those come together.

“We have built over the last 50 years a decentralised, a disaggregated, car dependent economy, the cost of that has been society and place.

“If we want to reverse that, [and] we are taking society and place much more seriously, that requires big changes from a lot of individuals, and also a lot of very powerful organisations.

“And that is a real challenge.”

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