By Andrew McRae

Rebooting the Scottish high street will take more than the lifting of lockdown. To revitalise our town and city centres, we’ll need cash, property reforms and a commitment from big business, the public sector and locals to support these important local places.

The last year of travel restrictions has allowed some Scots to rediscover the neighbourhood on their doorstep. Some locals – especially in affluent suburbs and towns – have discovered brilliant independent local firms, and a high street that generates civic pride.

However, many in poorer communities have found their local town centre gap-toothed and dilapidated. Lockdown has reminded us just how entrenched decline is in many of the places we call home.

Across the country, long-term empty properties blight our local high streets. These eyesores now have new partners – units left empty by the collapse of once mighty retail brands, leaving some places with more vacancies than occupancies.

This is before we consider our city centres, where the likely rise in working from home may lead to a further drop in footfall and spending power.

So what do we do?

While silver bullets are in shorter supply than bank branches, the key to successful local centres is diversity. Or, put another way, a high street’s decline lies in an over-dependence on retail.

Over the last four decades, online and out-of-town retail drew footfall and disposable income from the centres of our local places.

Don’t get me wrong, independent retailers will always play a pivotal role to a local area’s success. And as consumers we all want good local shops. But, after tracking hundreds of big business and public sector closures, we at FSB believe these retailers are only sustainable when they’re not propping up a neighbourhood economy on their own.

That’s why we want to see a wider variety of operators in the centre of our local places.

That means making the Scottish public sector come good on their promises to stop locating on the edge of town, and put services in the hearts of communities. While the so-called Town Centre First policy has been in place for nearly a decade, it really hasn’t delivered enough GP and dental practices, council services, and government departments across the average Scottish high street.

Similarly, attempts to put more housing in our town centres have been slow and stuttering, and just haven’t delivered to the scale required.

We must also see a wider variety of private sector non-retail operators choosing to set up shop in the centres. However, to make that appealing, it must be easy and affordable for them to take up space.

From FSB’s perspective, that might mean reform of the commercial property market in Scotland to introduce a standard small business lease, thus levelling the playing field. The fact that the majority of our members have been forced to pay rent as normal throughout the Covid crisis suggests that the power dynamic between big property owners and small tenants needs to be examined.

But with the best will in the world, these measures will take time. And to kick-start a change in fortunes for many local places, we’re going to need spend some cash.

That’s why we’re leading with calls to make the Scottish National Investment Bank invest in some of the most problematic empty properties – the empty cinema, the crumbling hotel, the decaying department store – that hold-back all efforts to turn a place around.

Similarly, we’d like the UK Government, Scottish Government and councils to revisit city and region deals to see if projects agreed pre-Covid remain appropriate, and whether more funding could be put into initiatives that will help us to adapt to a world that’s changed.

Independent businesses, especially shops, have buttressed our town and city centres for decades. But their efforts to sustain successful local places must be matched by the state’s.

Andrew McRae is Scotland policy chairman for the FSB in Scotland.