By Richard Slipper

According to Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, a £1.7 million Town Centre Communities Capital Fund is intended to “revitalise and regenerate” town centres across Scotland. Whilst this is an encouraging start and should prompt local authorities to look at their town centre action plans and their programmes attached to their local development plans, on closer scrutiny, a number of these initiatives are dated.

Given the revived interest in city and town centres from the capital investment market, there is scope to elevate public sector plans to more ambitious levels.

In particular, mixed-use developments require the public sector to work closely with investors, funding sources and occupiers to draw up realistic plans for prime pitch and core development sites.

There are encouraging signs of recovery in the retail market as sales figures reported by the CBI highlight growing consumer confidence and higher levels of retail employment. Developing this momentum will require more initiatives through public/private sector partnerships, land assembly for new high street developments and other specially planned projects through local development plans.

An increase in online retail consumption aside, physical retail outlets remain divided in the retail property market over prime locations and high-end retailing. Smaller retail markets and secondary locations are typically in weaker demand as occupiers are more interested in presenting their portfolios via larger projects.

In addition, the "race for space" on the part of convenience supermarkets has effectively been halted in the wake of changing market conditions and increased competition from discounters.

From a social and environmental point of view, we believe it is important to attract shoppers back to the high street, away from the online options.

Given the immediacy and ease of virtual shopping, it is no surprise that consumers are attracted to the online experience. There were numerous ideas floated to reinvigorate our high streets to encourage a sense of belonging and community wellbeing in the 2013/14 Scottish Government panel review on town centres. To achieve this, councils need to challenge the traditional "retail-only" frontage policies to create a richer mix of different uses in the high streets by augmenting the retail offering with tourism, leisure and cultural uses.

Indeed, there has been a marked increase in the proportion of restaurants, cafes and bars across our high streets that account for more than 20 per cent of the total city centre floorspace in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

This goes some way towards explaining the decrease in the total available pipeline of new floor space in our large Scottish cities. According to research in our latest annual town centre research bulletin, new floor space in Scotland is falling by some 171,000 sq/m, to just over 1 million sq/m under development. To a certain extent, this statistic also reflects the acceleration of projects towards overall completion together with the overall decline in the amount of consented space in the pipeline.

It is interesting to note that towns and cities that are more imaginative with their town centre developments attract higher numbers of users and visitors. According to the recent VenueScore results, Glasgow continues to maintain its position as the top ranked retail destination in the UK, outwith London.

However, Edinburgh has fallen six places over the past five years and comes in at number 10. This is arguably down to marked improvements in other cities south of the Border such as Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham, which have all benefited from major new schemes and refurbishments. But it also underlines how crucial the £850m St James redevelopment project is to Edinburgh, not only to revitalise the east end of the city but also to bring the capital back up into the ranks of popular consumer retail destinations.

Scotland also needs to start delivering more high profile city centre developments. It’s clear that town centres are undergoing fundamental structural change but, whilst there are positive signs of more active high streets, it is important that councils re-evaluate and update their retail policies to enable smooth and flexible development. Through shared visions, effective, simplified planning and public/private partnerships, this country can use the retail market to sustain and improve its towns and cities.

Richard Slipper is senior director, planning, development and regeneration for GVA James Barr property consultancy.