Scotland’s Towns Conference 2012: Creating New Stories for Scotland’s Towns…
(Wednesday 7th November 2012 in Perth Concert Hall, Perth, Scotland)
The Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres was formally announced on the 9th September 2012. The announcement builds on a growing body of research and debate about Scotland’s town centres, how they are changing and the need to ensure our towns are equipped well in the future to support the economic and social aspirations of communities. This involves addressing the problems that some town centres face, alongside encouraging individuality and diversity – embracing the opportunities that can exist. The aims of the review is to scope out potential solutions to the issues faced by Scotland’s town centres and to enable a measured, long-term approach to town centre regeneration by targeting these issues. The review will be undertaken in five phases and will be developed and implemented in partnership with local authorities, communities and other key sectors and will be action and solution focussed.
To shape and drive the review forward, an External Advisory Group (EAG) was formed to move the debate on to the next level and to spearhead action on the future for Scotland’s town centres. The EAG pulls together a range of people from diverse backgrounds with differing views on what town centres should look like and what solutions need to be put in place to manage change. To open the review, a two-day Scottish Towns Review Symposium was held in Kilmarnock on 25-26th September 2012 bringing together the newly-established EAG, as well as town centre experts to focus on agreeing priority areas for action as part of Phases 3 and 4 of the review.
Scotland’s Towns conference sought to build on these recent major milestones for Scotland’s national debate on our towns and town centres. The conference brought together a range of speakers and participants from across Scotland to embrace the diversity and enthusiasm required to bring the change needed in Scotland’s places. Participants were welcomed to the conference by the conference Chair, Ross Martin, of the Center for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) and Board Member of the recently formed Scottish Towns Partnership (STP).
In addressing The Town Story So Far, the opening address was led by Derek Mackay MSP, Minister for Local Government and Planning. Derek spoke about how local communities hold the ‘trigger’ to unlock the tools to make better use of, to adapt and to capitalise on, the opportunities that community assets have in helping to shape the design of their local communities and town centre revitalisation. Some of the main themes, ideas, exemplar projects and policy thinking that have been emerging within recent debates and policy development proposals to support the desired change within Scotland’s towns were then highlighted. These included the need for local solutions to better connect people and place such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDS); the growing evidence-base underpinning the context for the Towns Review e.g. the Fresh Start Initiative and how this can be utilised and adapted within local communities; how the planning system in Scotland is principally about enabling development to bring about economic benefit and how to use this benefit to generate activity within communities; and, finally, the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill which seeks a transferral of power to communities to allow communities greater decision-making powers on issues that affect their own communities.
Following the Minister’s opening address, questions were then invited from the audience and a number of important points were tabled for the Minister to respond. In relation to the Towns Review and the ongoing review of Scotland’s planning system for instance, mention was made of the planning system’s new performance indicators and that whilst over the past five years Scotland’s planning system has changed dramatically, planning for wind farm developments and redundant listed buildings remained outstanding issues for Scotland’s towns and require further attention by the Scottish Government. Economic benefit to towns in these contexts is regarded as a ‘material’ consideration and that the policy direction in this context has yet to be determined. For instance, it was suggested that planning policy ‘technical guidance’ is less subjected to the scrutiny that policy often dictates and requires to evaluate and measure economic benefit to places. A key question then was whether the Scottish Government were planning to improve these different elements of the planning system that would constitute an economic benefit to places.
Economic development in towns needs to be harnessed by planning authorities. They will be measured on their ability to meet performance and the Better Regulation Bill aims to challenge performance through reduced planning fees if performance is not met. To this end, two specific actions that can be taken include processing agreements and a pre-application discussion. The crucial point is that the Scottish Government’s role in planning is that is provides clarity, priority and intention in order to guide planning performance absolving the need for a ‘moratorium’. For instance, the current hierarchy for locating retail development will be sustained as reusing existing land for development should be preferred option for ‘out-of-town’ shopping centres.
Planning needs to approve applications on merit and this should be linked to what genuine economic growth comes from these. Guidance has been reduced from over 400 pages to fifty-five in recognising that Scotland’s planning system – and in relation to towns, needs to be clear, focused and succinct in purpose; and, that this purpose is closely aligned to sustainable economic growth in towns. In this context, the ‘Empty Property’ rates relief will need closely monitored to ensure that this proposal is not counter-productive to what towns genuinely need to be economically sustainable – private sector investment. The Scottish Government are not convinced that this sector will be paying more in rates as a result of this proposal.
We then heard from Daniel McKendry of East Renfrewshire Council (ERC) who talked about ERC’s engagement with key issues affecting the growth and sustainability of towns: scale and leadership. Three different approaches to regeneration initiatives were highlighted: in Barrhead (investment-led), Neilston (community establishment of a Town Charter, ‘a charter for change’), and, Clarkston BID (business-led). An innovative and stimulating approach underpinning these initiatives has been ‘branding’ through promoting each of the towns’ initiatives under the overarching umbrella as ‘Places to Grow’ sustainably.
Each town has common threads involving place and pride in identifying that confidence and imagination as well as flexibility and learning from mistakes are key to sustainable regeneration. Understanding and recognising that towns have very different scale and leadership challenges – challenges that are a crucial ingredient for place-based town solutions will allow towns to determine their future. The ability of towns to leverage opportunities happens in phases exemplified and achieved through, for example, using BID funding to lever in finance from the Greener Transport and the Cycling Scotland fund. Partnerships in Clarkston illustrate that it is businesses that look after the town centre, not the local authority. In Neilston, the development of the Town Charter emerged from a process that was particularly unique in Scotland involving a combined process of consultation methods (i.e. Charrette), establishing Neilston Development Trust and a Town Team to drive and deliver the change in Neilston that local people wanted. The Charter will be adopted within the LDP and supplemented by SPG. In Barrhead, opportunities were created from investment-led solutions tapping into both European and the Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF). Barrhead’s masterplan and investment-led approach was underpinned by an urban design framework which aimed to tackle the multiple reasons why the town required a regeneration initiative to capture the challenges and provide the solutions the town required. Delivery of Barrhead’s regeneration illustrates the importance of partnership involving many partners including the town’s Regeneration Board; its business community; the Community Council and genuine engagement with all the town’s communities and other stakeholder involvement.
We then heard some inspiring short provocations from participants of the Towns Review Group Symposium who were invited to share and update the conference from their perspectives on the social, cultural and enterprise experience of the ‘town context’. John Lord, Director of Yellowbook (social), emphasised that we must recognise that the ‘chosen community’ of towns consists of citizens and not consumers and that active engagement within towns is alive but is not stimulated from a town’s locality but from surrounding locales. There is decreasing demand to fill a towns spaces and consolidation and concentration has to emerge so different communities of interest make town centres the chosen community for a towns surrounding locales to engage. The sole purpose of policy and practice should be to ensure this happens to allow communities to come together and that this goes beyond the scope of traditional planning and conventional practice. Echoing Derek Mackay’s emphasis on communities being the trigger, this can only emerge organically. Key questions to address are whether we are brave enough to allow this happen and what is the least we can do make this a reality.
Maggie Broadly, artist and Creative Director of Craft Town Scotland (cultural) and, an exemplar of the West Kilbride Community Initiative scheme, outlined some reservations about the community being at the heart of a town. Wider connections and engagement must be achieved with other town representatives to ensure that individuals’ visions for their towns are listened to by the planning process thereby avoiding the disenfranchisement and disconnection often alluded to in their experience of the process. Emphasis also needs to be reversed from the view that business and regeneration experts (in their capacity to advise organisations) towards emphasising that it is the community that benefits this expertise. Key questions are how we measure success; what does success look like beyond our standard economic impact assessments; and, how do we measure how communities feel about their town. Do we really mean it when we want communities to take the risks whilst at the same time recognising that local authorities are risk averse in delivering greater control to communities.
Iain Scott, one of the UK’s foremost ‘intrapreneurship’ gurus talked about ‘intrapreneurship’, a concept he has developed which allows individuals to be enterprising with an organisation. Essentially, this captures a growing consensus that we need to allow failure to happen in order that we can learn what success is and is not. Two perspectives were alluded to in relation to current approaches: the strategic sites approach to towns (masterplanning, (infra)/structural context and the public realm); and, the responsive approach which involves capturing the ideas from the ground level, that is, from people who live in towns. Town centres for instance, are unique in that they signify a ‘meeting of people’ but that the approach needs to ensure we allow a town’s existing space for this creativity to emerge. This will allow a town’s entrepreneurial spirit to come to the fore and with this, capture and share the learning that is needed to understand and accept that the ‘allowing failure’ concept is acceptable. Key questions is whether we need to get personal if our approach is to make it personal by bringing the various interested parties (planning, public sector and public realm) to allow and achieve the space needed for this to happen.
Understanding and building the potential of towns requires identifying the Key Ingredients for Successful Towns. These are important and necessary to towns’ services, facilities and assets. Part two of the conference invited discussants to agree on what these were under the broad theme of ‘towns’ futures’ in creating new stories for our towns. Robert Rae (3rd Horizons) outlined his ‘framework for mess’ by stating that a ‘town’s story’ and ‘horizons’ are unpredictable. In introducing this idea, he felt this was analogous with the GB Olympic Cycling Team who achieved success by widening their horizons on the basis of what level of importance was attached to achieving success based on scenarios. Three scenarios (or models) were described and involved a Horizon 1 (a business as usual approach); a Horizon 2 (breaking the mould) and, a Horizon 3 (developing new ways for a new world). Key to the GB team’s Olympic success was adopting Horizon 3 in their efforts to improve and increase in and over time their ‘margins for success’. Different levels of importance therefore are attached to each Horizon illustrating that both pessimistic and optimistic views of an uncertain future are unrealistic. In other words, the future is ultimately unpredictable.
Implementing Alternative Futures was led by Professor Diarmaid Lawlor, (Head of Urbanism at Architecture and Design Scotland). Diarmaid addressed how we implement alternative futures within our town centres using ten key ingredients identified by conference participants. Ten things towns need to do involve considering something different to the retail offer. To implement a town’s future, and reflecting the story so far, towns need to be open in that individuals from a town’s communities have to be involved in decision-making from the start of the process; this is about permission to do something different. Towns and individuals need to be allowed to ‘give it a go’ and that this will create the learning and innovation infrastructure that will sustain a town’s progress in the future. Towns need to be responsive in understanding the needs of its citizens and the individuality of people and they also need to be accountable if they are to be open. In other words, places need to make their own decisions. It is not impossible to create the right conditions for thriving, socially sustainable town centres for example, could towns pay loads of money to ‘go to people’ in town centres or can towns champion ambassadors of town centres?
Building on participant’s feedback in this open space session, 10 Key Ingredients are listed here:
- Safety and security
- Culture: local history and community
- Youth engagement: opening up spaces – allowing change in opening times of facilities/premises.
- Transport – parking in towns
- Multifunctional – the qualities of a town and sense of ownership
- Arts and leisure – personal services and pop-up cafes
- Environmentally friendly – weather proofing our towns
- The Town Experience – pleasurable, vibrant and a night time economy to match
- Creating the right environment for knowledge exchange and sharing
- Political consensus
Developing this, 10 things that towns needed to do to deliver those ingredients were then grouped into three broad themes for participants to identify, agree and feedback to the conference. These themes were behavioural and cultural, strategic and community. A key objective of this activity for participants was to also consider the ‘stress test’ of towns in delivering these ingredients, the ‘what if’ in a town’s attempt at delivering the key ingredients. Some of this feedback is captured below mainly posed as questions that were raised as part of the open space session feedback.
Behavioural-cultural: as a start we need to prevent failure by creating trust, understand roles and values. Could towns employ ‘town welcomers’ by recruiting local people? Strategically, what can towns agree upon? Should we bring back the TCRF and can we really persuade local authorities to take a step back and what if they don’t? Town center co-ordinators are enablers of the town. How do we finance this when budgets and resources are declining further? We need to understand people’s values better. Towns need to lobby government to be more flexible and towns should be allowed to keep money that is spent within local areas. How does all this get governed and financed? Communities within towns require less legislation but communities also need to be seen to be aware that they must be within the rules. Communities need to have rootedness, that is, what are their values and what do they value about their town and their place? What can the community do to deliver these ingredients within their town. Communities need to take responsibility, as part of their citizenship. Can communities establish a Community Development Trust (CDT) and if this does not work, can communities go for chaos instead? CDT are fragmented so do we need to have refresh of the Community Development Network (CDN) working alongside community activists, a community ‘infrastructure’?
Joost Beunderman (Architecture 00) and civic economy expert, introduced Putting in Place the Conditions to Scale It Up. Joost described research findings published in his book, ‘Compendium for the Civic Economy’ by describing private-public funding within areas and towns. Drawing upon evidence from 25 trailblazers examined, he defined ‘public spaces that are edible spaces’, by highlighting how there are many mechanisms at play within a civic economy and identified what it was that had underpinned success. His research identified that new forms of collaboration emerged which unlocked the different roles across the public, private and third sectors and citizens at large and, through combining commercial and social exchange, this had created a different kind of economy, community, resilience and experience in places. Key to this exchange requires ‘intrapreneurship’ as much as entrepreneurship. For Joost, people with passion, creativity and drive, exist within our towns and places, despite the challenging economic context. Key questions Joost addressed in his work were how do established organisations respond and how do we make it better? In answering these questions, 7 key issues with real world examples were then highlighted by Joost, again drawing from his research on what defined and was identified as a civic economy within different places across the world.
- Towns need to recognise civic entrepreneurs as people with networks and with ideas and they need to consider what this may imply for policy. An example he described in this context was a small knitting business, ‘Granny’s Finest’ from The Netherlands. This model of civic economy in practice contained three key elements: social production + high value products + social networks. Another example alluded to by Joost, was the ‘Superhero Supply Store’. This example of a civic economy model in practice consisted of one where retail meets learning + zoning rules ‘in the way’ + a vital social infrastructure. Another example cited was Brixton Village in London where links were established between social entrepreneurs and local landowners. These are the new types of social business models and are, what Joost describes, ‘answer the vulnerabilities of our societies’, for example, old people. But how do we enable this to flourish within our towns?
- For a civic economy to flourish, we need to invite co-production through building collaborative products. An example here is the ‘People’s Supermarket’ which was a model based on membership ownership + membership operated where 60% of the membership were local citizens from the area. But what are the tactics of unlocking co-production? An example would be match funds where the example of Seattle’s Department of Neighbourhoods in the USA testified that this particular civic economy model was not just about better community engagement for instance.
- Towns need to unlock latent assets – beyond buildings. Economic and community development must become one and the same and both need to be invested in. This allows trading spaces to emerge, going beyond the ‘cut throat competitive’ tradition we are used to. For Joost, this is the compendium for the civic economy.
- Towns need to provide and act as the platform for the civic economy. There are good ideas everywhere. For example, the ‘Fablab’ was a DIY invention, testing and production enterprise that involved businesses and hobbyists together with young people which brought about a new network. In this particular example, the shop space needed to establish and develop this business was only 4 square meters.
- Towns need to provide the critical enthusiasm and interrogation needed. Change-makers for instance want more than just change in places and their economies. Initiatives are still not being linked up and there is a need to create sharing.
- Towns require outcome-based development management. An example here was the Tubingen French Quarter in Germany. This model consisted of a mission-driven vision + translation into a development approach + stronger partner management.
- Towns must, as an imperative for their civic economies, embrace open-endedness. In other words, a civic economy needs to move from regulation beyond de-regulation towards self-regulation.
Chris Wade then…..
The conference closed with a short presentation from Jen Minchin of Horsecross Arts Creative Learning, based in Perth and a summary of the day’s events was then provided by Malcom Fraser, Chair of the Scottish Government’s Towns Review. Malcolm described what he referred to as the ‘Social High Street’ of towns and provided a short talk of what this consisted of. A ‘social high street’ is about:
- Living on the high street
- Community assets
- Streamlining the planning system and apparatus
- Addressing the issue of empty shops
- Accessibility – public services
- Digital towns
- Town transport and accessibility
- Leadership and mentoring
- Leadership and masterplanning and,