A LEADING academic and commentator on retail policy has questioned the ability of UK politicians to get to the bottom of the problems facing the country’s town and city centres.

The condition of Scotland’s town and city centres has become a focus of national debate in the aftermath of the pandemic, with lockdowns and continuing hybrid working widely believed to have hastened the decline of many urban areas by slashing footfall and accelerating the rate of business closure.

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, was commenting shortly after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak published the UK Government’s Long-Term Plan for Towns, which will give 55 towns each £20 million endowment-style funds over the next 10 years.

The UK Government plan, which will include funding for seven towns in Scotland, is designed to allow local communities to make decisions about the long-term future of their towns and “invest in line with their priorities”.

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Asked whether enough appetite is being shown at political level to tackle challenges facing towns, Mr Sparks, who chairs Scotland’s Towns Partnership, said: “I think it's worthwhile disaggregating the Scottish Government and the UK Government. I’d throw into that the Labour Party as well because they threw in a piece about high streets.

“I think the UK Government and the potential next UK Government have no idea what they are doing in this space and are just putting cosmetics into place. If you look at the south-east and London, you can see the prosperity, you can see places doing really well. But that reality elsewhere just isn’t there and I don’t think they get the fundamental problems. In Scotland, it is more of a mixed picture.”

Mr Sparks is the author of A New Future for Scotland’s Towns, a major report from 2021 that made recommendations to improve the prospects of the country’s urban centres. He said the Scottish Government has made worthwhile progress in the period since, highlighting changes to planning rules that will make it difficult for out-of-town shopping centres to be built, but said there was scope for improvement.

Mr Sparks said: “I think the policy framework is pretty good. I would like to see it somewhat stronger, but MPF4 (national planning framework four) and some of things around that are good. I think the money being put aside, while you would always want more, is focused on the place principle. The place-based investment fund, I think that is strong, but we need more, and it needs to be consistent. We have got that.

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“Where the challenge comes is that the underlying causes of the problems in towns and city centres are not really being tackled.

“The second of my three recommendations was about fiscal levers and thinking through what sort of society and economy we want. No government has really done that yet.”

Asked why he feels this is the case, Mr Sparks said: “There are a few things at play here. The first is we spent 50 years-plus destroying our town centres, so there is a long-term issue and we need to take long-term decisions and politicians of all ilk struggle with that because of the nature of the way our politics plays out.

“Secondly, in some of the areas, non-domestic rates – business rates in England – are the classic example. There is an edifice and an approach that guarantees a fixed some of money, and the challenges of altering that are really quite significant. It is very easy for me to write ‘sort out business rates, change VAT, stick an online tax in’. The realities of delivering that are somewhat more complex. It requires a lot of people to realise we need governmental change, organisational change, and personal change, if we are going to meet the challenges of town centres, climate change and all of the rest of the things we are struggling with. So all of those come together.”

Mr Sparks was commenting as part of a special report on the future of Scotland’s towns and cities in this issue of Business HQ. Experts and business leaders offer their thoughts on how issues ranging from how to breathe new life into vacant buildings and shop units to encouraging more people to live in town and city centres.