There can be little doubt that the pandemic has affected city centres to a far greater extent than many places. City centre businesses and organisations depend on residents, visitors, tourists and workers for their footfall and trade. When lockdowns occurred, working from home become a way of life for some and tourists and visitors were banned, city centres lost much of their vibrancy and life. In Scotland this was especially felt in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The City Centre Recovery Task Force Report (published 31st March) was a joint endeavour between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Cities Alliance, representing the seven official cities of Scotland. The aim of the Task Force was to answer a “principal question”:
How can the public, private and third sector work together to ensure that Scotland’s city centres have a prosperous future, contributing to inclusive and sustainable growth in our cities and their wider regions
The answers to this question are outlined in the Report from the Task Force, produced recently and available here.
The report, as might be expected makes the case for the primacy of the cities of Scotland and their importance in the economic life of the country. This is especially the case in the chapter on the context for the seven cities (though really only three get mentioned often (the big two plus Aberdeen) and a fourth in a specific circumstance (Dundee and culture)). The bulk of the report though is given over to a chapter on Priorities and one on Putting Recommendations into Practice.
Seven priorities are outlined:
- Action on immediate recovery (mainly funding issues)
- Data on spend
- Building expertise
- Visitor campaign
- Investor attraction
- Greater clarity around return to offices
- Call on UK Government to make changes to VAT to better support city centre recovery.
These are then followed by 7 outcomes for city centre recovery over a five year period, achieved by putting recommendations into practice. The outcomes are:
- Increased residential capacity and occupancy in city centres
- Smaller city centre carbon footprint
- Reduction in the amount of vacant and derelict land and property
- Increase in city centre creative, entrepreneurial and start-up activity
- More revenue raising opportunities for local authorities
- Reduction in oversupply of retail, and increase in cultural offer
- Faster and more agile planning decisions.
Each outcome, bar one, has a number of recommendations or actions.
A few observations struck me on reading the Report.
First, there is an interesting (but far from new) point about the difficulty of obtaining data to illustrate the Report and to reach conclusions. The Report comments on the lack of consistent data for city centres (and cities) and the over reliance it forces onto data at the Local Authority level. Representing Stirling city centre by data on Stirling Council shows how ludicrous this situation is. There is urgent need to establish a consistent, reliable and comparative data source on city centres, and also for towns (though see the start made in Understanding Scottish Places). Agreed boundaries and measures would help enormously and is something statisticians in Scottish Government should be doing. We are all badly served in this regard.
Secondly, there is little in the seven recommendations into practice headlines that one could disagree with. These in many ways align with the Place Principle and the towns review and recommendations and are clearly issues we need to address at all urban levels. The devil is in the detail of course and here on reading the detailed components under each area, one is left asking why these things are not happening already? More worryingly though the approach does not seem to recognise the wider issues in the situation we start from: we need to tackle the harm that is being done to city (and town) centres by existing developments and approaches and recognition of this seems to be lacking.
Most clearly this is seen in the issues around productivity, a just transition and a plea made in the urgent priorities to get people back into offices. The latter is not a claim unique to this Report of course. However, it flies in the face of the behaviours that people have got accustomed to and the benefits they, and some businesses, derive from this, and the complex relationship of transport commuting, just transition and sustainability and productivity. There is, for me, a little too much of wishing to return to what was there before, as though that will be the right approach for our (needs to be) much changed future. Agile working, working from home, productivity and sustainability gains as well as mental health and wellbeing need stronger consideration in the city centre agenda. This is a challenge for city centres and their businesses. It implies the need for much greater recognition of the shared agenda and relationships of city centres and their various linked places including towns.
Finally, and this is very much a personal, but probably unpopular view, the Report in trying to encompass all seven cities does not sufficiently recognise that Scotland has two major cities in Glasgow and Edinburgh and two more specialist cities in Aberdeen and Dundee (which in other countries might be called large urban places or towns). There are special requirements for these two major cities and they have less in common with the other cities; those other cities have more in common with the large towns agenda. More focus on the very real issues of the city centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow – and the potential opportunities to rethink them – might have produced a more dynamic and actionable report for these essential components of Scottish economy and society.