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Task force takes on fight to aid ailing town centres

THE future of town centres in Scotland is to be examined by a team of leading experts amid claims the traditional view of our high streets should be regarded as a thing of the past.

There are currently 20,000 town-centre business units lying empty in Scotland due to rising rents and the popularity of out-of-town developments.

Now a Government-appointed task force of architects, business leaders and policy makers – the National Review of Town Centres – will work to breath new life into the country's ailing high streets.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which represents many shopkeepers, will take part in the review.

Andy Willox, policy maker at the FSB, said society has to accept shopping, living and working habits have changed.

He said: "If we want to turn around our towns, then considered action from local and central government, private and public sectors will be required.

"Independent retailers should always have a place in our communities but we should also consider other ways of bringing employment and enterprise into the centre of our conurbations.

"What we do know though is that the future of our high streets doesn't lie in the models of the past. Our shopping habits, living and working habits have changed for good."

Leading architect Malcolm Fraser has been named as the chairman of the review, and the body will include members from accountants Ernst and Young, the Association of Town Centre Managers, the Scottish Retail Consortium, Creative Scotland, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, and Stirling University.

Mr Fraser said it was "not just a matter of nostalgic regret" that town centres had dwindled.

He added: "Their integrity, liveability and neighbourliness provide Scotland with its creative and business focus.

"They are our true 'eco-towns', whose health is also critical to the Government's low-carbon agenda. I like the wide-ranging brief this review has. It encourages us to examine a wide range of changes and initiatives to lever positive change."

The task force, which will meet for the first time next month, will report to Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister and the new Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities.

Ms Sturgeon said: "With Scotland's high streets facing a range of challenges, we're eager to ensure they continue to thrive and flourish to meet the needs of future generations. Central to that will be issues like rents, rates, planning and empty premises. Ensuring we have a joined-up strategic approach to issues like this can only help our town centres thrive.

"Of course, investment is also crucial and we, along with our partner agencies, will use this review to inform future budgets and investments."

Meanwhile one of the world's top urban planners, Denmark's Jan Gehl, has claimed Edinburgh has "screwed up" attempts to modernise itself.

Mr Gehl has worked on transforming urban spaces in cities including Copenhagen and Melbourne. He said he doubted the system in Britain as a whole was geared towards change.

Speaking in the capital following his address to the annual Geddes Lecture – in honour of Scottish urban design pioneer Patrick Geddes – he said: "There's something about the political structure over here which stops political progress."

Mr Gehl has been campaigning for "liveable cities" since the 1960s with a focus on returning streets to pedestrians, but he claimed traffic planners who treat people "like sheep" remain in control of major projects.

Edinburgh, he said, was the most beautiful city in the world, but the Grassmarket was full of "funny little objects" and the Royal Mile was little better.

He said: "When you pedestrianise the Royal Mile it's a half-hearted gesture."

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