Scotland’s town centres are at a “game-changing” moment, MSPs have been told.
Holyrood’s Economy and Fair Work Committee heard evidence from a panel of experts on the development of towns across the country on Wednesday.
Funding schemes from both the UK and Scottish governments towards revitalising town centres were praised by the panel, but they warned that ultimately, the locations need to be reinvented against a backdrop of favourable out-of-town destinations and online shopping.
Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, said funding measures have allowed for bigger decisions to be made on projects where the level of risk involved would have otherwise put developers off.
However, he told the committee that governments need to take a firmer approach and tighten up on policy frameworks in order to give the commercial sector certainty.
Mr Prentice said: “If we tell [the commercial sector] ‘you can’t build on greenfield sites any more’, they will turn their investments towards the town centre and come up with innovative, long-term, sustainable solutions.
“Towns are there for everybody. For the people, for the planet, for the environment, for the economy. We have to nurture them.
“Scotland has some great towns. The storybook of our journey as a nation from early kings and parliaments goes right through to industrialisation and modern towns.
“We’ve got a strong culture, we just need to breathe a bit of life back into the heart of our town centres.”
Towns such as Campbeltown and Oban, Mr Prentice said, show that with investment, locations can be revitalised and go on to attract events such as art and music festivals to bring more visitors in.
Jennifer Hunter, executive leader at Culture Counts, highlighted barriers that are faced when trying to introduce cultural locations into vacant buildings.
Having investigated potential uses for vacant sites in her own town, Ms Hunter said the experience would “put most people off”.
She told the committee: “It just seems like there’s barriers, barriers, barriers.
“So if there’s something we could do to make it easier, short-term and long-term, for people to go in and redevelop these spaces to bring that vibrancy to the town centres, I think that would really help.”
Ms Hunter suggested the Scottish Government could introduce policies such as rates relief, the provision of support for towns making bids and being listed as statutory consultees for discussions around things like city deals to try and tackle some of the challenges.
MSPs were told that work carried out on planning is “sending us in generally the right direction”.
Mr Prentice said: “Almost a third of our economic activity has moved online. Not all of that tax has been captured properly.
“There has to be an equitable approach in terms of digital sales tax, looking into modernising the system to make it fit for purpose, looking at moratoriums for out-of-town developments which are unsustainable, dealing with the VAT issue around refurbishment and retrofitting.
“There’s lots of things that this plan is trying to achieve. We’ve taken 50 years in terms of making poor planning decisions, being driven by commercial investment developer-led decisions.
“It will take some time to unpick all of this, but I do think the work that has been done over the last couple of years around planning is basically sending us in generally the right direction.”