Out in and beyond the suburbs there was plenty of space for shoppers to park their cars. In turn the retailers could get more floorspace, and more flexible space in shed-like buildings that were relatively cheap to construct.
As Europe mimicked the North American trends, gaps began to appear in the shopping frontages in our town centres. This particularly hit the smaller and medium sized towns. In the large cities there was a sufficient critic al mass of customers and investment to sustain commercial uses. However, the smaller centres, where stores could only offer a limited range of products were badly hit by the combination of out-of-town superstores and the new embrace of consumer choice as the definitive human right of the age.
Then came the internet. E-shopping further extended consumer options and removed the need to go into town to compare goods before buying. It was another blow to the heart of our towns.
As accountants began to run local government, the problems got worse. Councils built new schools on the edge of town and scrapped their old ones near the town centre. They even relocated council offices from cramped premises in the town centre to shiny new buildings out by the by-pass road round the town. At the same time the councils were beginning to worry about the decline of their centres, the empty buildings; places that had been dead during the evening became comatose during the day as well. Empty buildings resulted in loss of income to councils from property taxes.
What can be done?
Though the problems sketched above are general, responses need to be tailored to fit the specific situation in each town. National, regional and local governments have a role to play, but are unlikely to be able to reverse the decline by themselves. In Scotland the government has taken a number of important steps. It set up an independent group to look at the problems and report on them. What emerged was the “Town Centres First” principle – a call for all public agencies to put the town centre first.
This is easier said than done and fits some public services more easily than others. Thus in 2014 we have had a review of planning policy in Scotland, resulting in a clear requirement to steer development to town centre sites. However, other services – such as economic development or education or health – tend not to see their investment as having a spatial dimension or contributing to spatial policy aims. The government has established a fund to support demonstration projects for housing development in town centres.
The challenge of aligning all government spending behind a Town Centres First approach has been taken up by making revisions to the Public Finance Manual, a set of guides that are applied to public spending in Scotland. However, aligning the initiatives and investments of the many public agencies remains a work in progress.
So what other innovations are needed to revive our town centres? We have a range of mechanisms already. One of them is Business Improvement Districts, which allow town centre businesses to create a fund dedicated to promoting the centre and making it more attractive. However, town centre traders remain a notoriously difficult group to mobilise. Small traders tend to find it hard to look beyond their own business, while chain stores too often have no particular commitment to a town, as what matters for them is the financial return to their distant owners.
The Scottish Government has taken two important and radical steps to grapple with these problems. Property taxes on businesses have been set centrally for years in Scotland. From 2015 it will become possible for local level governments to set lower taxes on business in their area. This addresses a long standing complaint that property taxes have impacted negatively on local businesses.
However, the business and the owner of a town centre property are not necessarily the same. Property owners may be demanding unrealistic rents, or be happy to see their properties lie empty in the hope that this will make a more commercially attractive redevelopment easier to achieve. This can be a problem with historic buildings that have some special protection and regulation of redevelopment. A further problem is that if an owner reduces rents it will impact on the value of the asset, which in turn will make borrowing for further development projects more difficult.
Faced with these blockages, the government is creating legislation that will give communities the right to buy land and property, even including through the use of powers of compulsory purchase. Similar powers have existed for some time in rural areas of Scotland. It will be interesting to see how they are used in urban areas, and with what impacts.