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Plea for cash help to revive town centres

Financial incentives for business are now needed to back up the Scottish Government's commitment to the regeneration of town centres, the man who led a review of policy has said.

VISIBILITY: Marc Hindley has the confidence to move his e-commerce and design business to the high street in Forres.
VISIBILITY: Marc Hindley has the confidence to move his e-commerce and design business to the high street in Forres.

Architect Malcolm Fraser chaired the National Review of Town Centres which 12 months ago urged a "town centre first" approach by public bodies in approving new homes and leisure or public facilities.

Now Mr Fraser has welcomed the Government's endorsement of a Town Centre First Principle for the public sector, but has urged more radical moves in the areas of rates and taxation.

Town centres and local roads issues are the final elements of The Herald's SME-SOS campaign highlighting key economic blocks on Scotland's vital small business sector.

Business groups say planning and parking restrictions are among factors undermining the revival of town centres at a time when 10 per cent of shops lie empty, and are urging a joined-up approach to regenerating the high street.

Mr Fraser said: "We need incentives to get development where we want to see it. I would encourage the government to be bolder in using tax as a positive lever to back up this town centre first principle."

Mr Fraser said the existing Business Rates Incentive Scheme, offering councils 50 per cent returns on rates for some areas, could be re-engineered for town centres, and Land Value Tax could be used to drive changes of use and attract housing development.

"I don't want to see these issues put on the back burner," Mr Fraser said.

His review a year ago called for radical measures to rescue Scotland's high streets from the twin threats of out-of-town developments and internet shopping. Last November the Government announced £2m of support between 32 councils for taking on empty properties.

Then last week it said local authorities, the NHS and Police Scotland would be asked to "weigh up the potential impact of closing town centre facilities against the benefits of keeping their town centres healthy and vibrant". They would be asked to "sign up to" the new principle, and "look beyond immediate pressures when they are making decisions about closing a town centre facility".

As The Herald revealed in May, a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found almost 100 towns across Scotland are facing closure of a local service including 61 police counters, 29 HMRC inquiry centres, five Crown post offices, and 17 sheriff and justice of the peace courts, as well as 24 bank branches.

The Scottish Retail Consortium wants to see joined-up policies that will streamline planning and building standards approvals and "make parking affordable and accessible, not merely a source of council revenue".

It is also calling for a rejuvenation of the BRIS, ring-fencing its proceeds for town centre regeneration, and the dedication of any UK government windfall allocations to high streets and town centres.

Marc Hindley moved his web design and e-commerce business Canary Dwarf onto the high street in Forres, and is now a member of the town centre working group.

He said: "It is unusual for a business like ours to be on the high street but it gives us visibility and gives our customers confidence.

"We also use our venue for training and meetings, so it's like having a big billboard on the high street though we may not get the huge footfall of a retail shop." He says the area has now lost its parking wardens, which could potentially be damaging to the town centre and its small traders. Parking along with promoting the town centre as an attractive environment are the main issues being tackled by the working group.

David Lonsdale, at the SRC, said further action to make it easier and less costly for retailers and other businesses to invest in town centres must now be prioritised. "I know from speaking to many shopkeepers over recent months that they view the building standards system in Scotland as a real bugbear. Chief concerns include the length of time needed to secure consents and warrants to open new shops, particularly in listed buildings which are common in our town centres, but also for things like putting in seats, toilets and signage. This is holding back much needed investment in our high streets and town centres, at a time when one in every ten shops remains empty."

Andy Willox, the FSB's Scottish policy convener, said: "We welcome many of the measures already put in place by the Scottish Government such as expanded business rate reliefs and the pilot projects putting housing back into the centre of our conurbations. An important next step is securing the footfall and revenue generated by the public sector in our towns. We need to develop a strong understanding of what Town Centre First means in practice."

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