A Social Scottish Townscape

I’ve seen the future of our towns and cities, and it’s crap. Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation: stuck in a dumb metal box, driving from my diddy-box suburb to the Business Park where I work, then to the Retail Park for the shopping then back down the road home for tea, then maybe out to the multi-this-or-that Leisure Complex in the evening, for some entertainment.

Ample parking everywhere, and everything in its place for efficient business-delivery: from the development giants who threw up the boxes on the greenfield sites to the chains who flip their products doon oor gratified gobs. No mess and no nasty surprises (and did I mention the ample parking?). And no ambiguity, no history, no belonging, nowhere for dissidence, no community, no tenderness…

Actually, I lied: I don’t live like that; I live in an old community and walk or cycle through the park to work. (My shops are near, entertainment too.) I get rained on sometimes and sometimes even sunned on; I hear the birdies and see the trees and breathe a bit, and say hello to friends. And on occasion one of them tells me something helpful to me – to my advantage in my work. So I arrive at work healthier, happier, and maybe even a wee bit more business-like.

I admit that it’s a nice wee corner of Edinburgh that I live in; but the principles that work for me, of nearness and amenity, work anywhere, and didn’t cost a bean or even saved a few – witness my shoe-leather and bicycle-repair-bill compared to the car, petrol and taxes of my first paragraph, never-mind all the lucrative things I can do with the time spent not sitting in traffic.

It’s our existing communities with their infrastructure – and people! – that are our Eco-towns, our true, sustainable communities

I’m far from alone in my recognition of this. In fact there’s a huge amount of activity around a number of town-centred ideas: such as recognition that towns and cities are the nation’s creative and economic powerhouses; or that the ideals of community, heritage and belonging that they embody need recovered; or – and this crucial aspect is less-recognised – that in pursuing a low-carbon economy and fighting climate change, the ‘Eco-town’ title, that is spun by those marketing some new, car-dependant (and green-washed) suburb built on farmland, really should apply to the nearby, existing (but struggling) community, that the new development aims to sook middle class money out of. It’s our existing communities, with their infrastructure of roads, drains, schools and transport – and people! – that are our Eco-towns, our true, sustainable communities.

So I believe that the tide has turned, and we are coming to understand that the post-war vision of a built environment seen exclusively through a car windscreen, has run its course; and if we knit together these aims – of creativity, community and sustainability – we could replace it by a vision of the future which emphasises some old, homespun urban virtues…

Of course, if all this urban loveliness is so desirable, creative, and cost-effective, why are our towns in so much trouble? Just as we are understanding their value, the challenges to the retail market are adding greatly to the problems of communities who have struggled to replace their former agricultural and industrial focusses.

Well, firstly, we’ve got used to life in our cars and take no account of the hours every day lost to them, and the friendships missed. But there are also some major structural imbalances in place, set there to suit big business, who lobby hard to keep them there. VAT, for instance: zero to knock down a building and build anew on a greenfield site but a swingeing 20 per cent to repair the old one. If VAT was levelled at five per cent across construction we would create jobs (repair is more labour-intensive, with a higher proportion of each £1 spend going on people, as opposed to materials), reduce homelessness (by bringing empty property back into the market), fortify existing communities (that old building empty in town would have a shiny new use by now), shrink the black market to almost nothing (20 per cent might be worth dodging, five per cent not) – and create so much building activity that (according to the r.i.c.s.) it would bring the same or more VAT return to the Treasury. But big business prefers a cleared site – less trouble – and the Establishment in general distrusts the sort of small businesses and incremental change this sort of repair and renewal represents, so the vast imbalance remains.

I have been asked, by the Scottish Government, to lead a Review into our Town Centres, to suggest what might be done to revive them. We will report in the Spring. The Advisory Group I lead is wide-ranging, involving people from business and the community, industry and the arts. Unfortunately we can’t do anything about VAT – a Westminster matter – but we are looking for the same sort of structural issues, under some simple and broad themes, and trying to put them in-kilter. We’ve set out three principles to guide our initiatives:

Deliverable: utilising existing legislation, levers and partners. (There are plenty of organisations out there talking about the importance of Town Centres; we don’t want to set up another, in competition, and will, instead, concentrate on delivery – on practical changes we can make to support their emerging consensus.)

Bottom-up: enabling and encouraging all sizes and types of communities to find their own, diverse ways (it’s not for us to define what a town is, or to lecture it on how to renew itself).

Diversity: recognising that the glory of the town is it’s many and varied functions. (England and Wales had a town Centre Review last year, led by Mary Portas, which concentrated on bolstering the independent retail sector against the online and out-of-town challenge; whereas we want to encourage a Town Centre full of variety – places to live, work and play as well as shop.)

We have seven Themes evolving. Some relate to Rates and Planning issues, the design of the public realm and digital initiatives. But I wanted, here, to outline our work so far on three that, I believe, emphasise links between the built environment and social inclusion.

Accessible Public Services

Our public institutions – Local Authorities, Health Boards and the like – are encouraged to make decisions about key Public Services on a fairly narrow set of economic principles. So, in a classic piece of short-termism, it might uproot a key institution from some old buildings in town and relocate it to some cheaper (VAT zero-rated) greenfield or edge-of-town site, with no analysis of the greater impact this will have on a community. (Later the Local Authority might notice the resultant lack of footfall, money and urban vitality in the town centre and seek to compensate by repainting the town’s park benches, or the like.) But the Town Centre locations were also walkable (for children walking to school as well as for those using other services), and well-stitched-into the public transport network, so such decisions prioritise those with cars, and always inconvenience those in the community without. This not only reduces the accessibility of those public services but restricts or inconveniences the labour pool available to the public sector.

We like the fact that what’s good for Town Centres is good for solid accessibility as a whole, and are seeking to use the unfolding Community Empowerment Bill to require public institutions to measure the impact of their decisions on how they affect the ability of the whole community to interact with their public services.

Community Development

There are a great many enterprising and creative arts, business and community initiatives in Scotland that have brought new energy to our towns and cities – some I have even been involved with, as architect or friend. Equally there are many empty buildings that would suit them – and some owners, and local Estate Agents, who might once have looked askance at some wee local group but can’t now afford to ignore them.

We’d like, in the first instance, to bring these people together, to share Asset Registers, and hope that the r.i.c.s. – the Chartered Surveyors’ national network – might help us. Thereafter, in the absence of Banks that will actually lend to good, sustainable, local initiatives, we’d like to assist them in understanding and presenting cases for grants or commercial loans, to the various sources of community microfinance; and I’d also like to persuade the Government to endow a microfinance initiative of its own.

Living on the High Street

At a time when so many are homeless, or unable to access a mortgage, empty homes anywhere are a disgrace. Empty homes right in the centre of our towns – often above shops – feel particularly perverse, and could provide local accommodation for those young and single people excluded from the mortgage market, that would inject life, love and money into the High Street.

There are, again, structural reasons they lie empty, and we’d like to address limitations on leaseholds that owners offer, as well as incentivising Housing Associations to develop a “upgrade and manage” package to offer a building’s owners, thus targeting Government housing funds into the hearts of communities instead of suburban, greenfield sites.

So, to return to our emerging realisation that a vibrant Town Centre delivers our aims for creativity, community and sustainability in the built environment, I would add a growing awareness that they are places where resources can be best accessed and shared by all the community – a social, and more democratic, townscape.