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Councils: We made errors that hurt our town centres

Public bodies admit to having undermined their own town centres in order to make short-term financial gains, the man who led Scotland's town centre review last year has said.

Optimistic: Lynne Duffus, owner of Lovely Things in Dundee, is confident about the future. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Optimistic: Lynne Duffus, owner of Lovely Things in Dundee, is confident about the future. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Architect Malcolm Fraser said councillors and officials had told him during his research that they had "done stupid things on the basis of the most short-term financial considerations", when closing down public buildings and relocating vital services to the edge of towns.

Following the Scottish ­Government's call last month for a "town-centre-first principle" to be adopted, Mr Fraser said: "Of course all that goes against, or is difficult, in the context of short-term cuts. But we would hope that councils will now have to prove more long-term cases."

Town centres and local roads, alongside public procurement and the skills gap, have been the issues in The Herald's SME-SOS campaign highlighting key economic blocks on Scotland's vital small business sector.

A year ago Scotland's Towns Partnership (STP), an offshoot of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, (CSPP) called for out-of-town sites to be given planning permission only if a suitable location cannot be found in a town centre, and for financial incentives to encourage more people to live in town centres.

STP, an offshoot of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, includes Business Improvement Districts Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland. The CSPP's policy director, Ross Martin, told The Herald those financial incentives were yet to appear.

Mr Martin, who will become chief executive of the Scottish Council Development and Industry in October, said: "The public sector will own the majority of land and buildings in the town centre, their footprint is massive. The trick is to take that public asset and drive investment into the area, that is the bit that is not happening."

Mr Fraser said there were ­ongoing discussions between the Government and Cosla over financial incentives. "I hope that is not forgotten and something positive comes of it," he said.

A recent survey of more than 40,000 independent shops across the UK discovered an increase of 27 per cent in small food and drink retailers, suggesting a consumer backlash against national chains and a willingness to buy local produce.

Small specialist shops along with service businesses are a vital component of town centre regeneration,say business groups.

A report at the end of last year found more than 60 towns and cities in Scotland have more than 100 shops - Ayr, Paisley, Falkirk and Kilmarnock each have over 400 - and that retailing is still "a fundamentally important and numerically and economically significant component of Scotland's cities and towns".

Transform Scotland, the sustainable transport alliance of operators, local environment groups, councils and businesses, will call this autumn for the next Scottish budget to prioritise local roads over trunk road spending.

The group's Fix it First campaign follows its survey in which 84 per cent of Scots agreed when asked whether the Scottish Government should give priority to fixing the existing road network before building new roads. Colin Howden, director of Transform Scotland, welcomed The Herald's spotlight on local roads and noted its connection with another of our campaign issues, public procurement.

He said: "If government focuses more on local roads rather than trunk roads, more of the contracts would go to smaller companies."

He said large infrastructure projects were now typically awarded to large companies based in Europe. The key issue is that government could decide to spend more money on smaller projects which would benefit local authorities and also benefit local businesses."

Lynne Duffus opened her 'Lovely Things' shop in the centre of Dundee two and a half years ago. "When I first opened the waterfront regeneration was about to kick off and I thought - I have invested half my life savings in this and it is going to go pear-shaped.

"They had just shut a massive car park across the road but the back of the Custom House has now been turned into a nice new car park.

"They have cracked on at such a speed that everything is changing daily....I can see the waterfront from the shop window, the Malmaison hotel has been finished and you can see quite a lot of new businesses popping up - it gives business a lot more confidence to go on with it and move in."

She adds: "I think they understand that it is people like me w ho are keeping the place looking quite nice, and more attractive for other businesses to move in. I do feel supported, and that if I had any major issues I would be listened to."

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