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Giving Evidence to the Economy and Fair Work Committee on Town Centres and Retail


The Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee’s call for written evidence for its inquiry into town centre and retail expired on the 16th March and they are now into oral evidence. The Committee posed two questions in its opening brief: Identify the new realities of retail and ecommerce in Scotland and the resulting impact on town centres and what is the subsequent policy response needed to create living and resilient town centres. They focused their call onto three areas (but did say any other relevant contribution would be welcomed):

  1. Keeping town centres alive
  2. The new realities of Scottish retail
  3. Ecommerce activity in Scotland

I think this is a rather narrow defining of the topic and so when I give oral evidence this morning (30th March) I hope I will get the opportunity to range more broadly and attempt to help the committee think more widely.

What follows is the very short opening statement that I have prepared:

“Good morning. I am Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies and Deputy Principal at the University of Stirling. I am also Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership. In 2012-3 I was a member of the National Review of Town Centres – the Fraser Review – which led to the Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre First and then the Place Principle. More recently I chaired the review into the Town Centre Action Plan, the report of which was published in February 2021 as “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”. In 2020/1 I was also a member of the Social Renewal Advisory Board and of the Ministerial Group producing the recently published Retail Strategy for Scotland.

I asked to make a short opening statement to this session in order to cover off a few elements that I believe are important for context and to point to places where longer contributions are available on some of the points I will make.

  1. I don’t want to inflict academic writing on you, so the best way to get a sense of my research and thoughts are via my blog ( and in the New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres report. I would encourage searching the former for discussions and presentations about town centres and changing retail patterns. The latter is a relatively succinct summary of the issues and possible policy directions. I would make one fundamental distinction that the committee needs to keep in mind – town centres and high streets are not interchangeable terms; the latter is the commercial/retail subset of the former. Focusing on town centres and retail alone runs risks in that direction.
  2. The outcomes we see in town centres are the interactions of complex changes over decades. We have spent at least 50 years damaging our town centres; the pandemic accelerated and exacerbated some trends, but these trends themselves are long standing. They will not be reversed without concerted effort over a number of years – and that effort needs to start with all of us agreeing to stopping doing harm to our town centres. That is a big ask, covering both new and existing decentralised development. ver this extended period, we have seen a capital flight from many town centres – not only in retail – as developments on greenfield sites focused on a car based economy have been privileged. Such developments are inherently simpler, easier and cheaper to build and operate, being less complex than working in existing multi-use built locations and produce a higher return on investment (which is then often extracted away from the local area). Houses, schools, cinemas, football grounds, offices, retail and so on have left towns as we built a disaggregated, decentralised, car-focused economy and increased disparities in society.
  3. Retail itself has altered over this period, most recently through the twin tracks of rapid and sustained increased penetration of online shopping and the rediscovery of convenience in its many guises. We now have too many shops, in the wrong locations, often run/owned by those without local interests at heart.
  4. The development of the Town Centre Action Plan in Scotland, followed by Town Centre First, the Place Principle and the Place Based Investment Programme – often amplified and encouraged by Scotland’s Towns Partnership and its partners and members – have positioned Scotland ahead of many other countries in tackling these long standing issues. The changing context as in the climate emergency, community empowerment and Community Wealth Building, Brexit and the pandemic and their impacts on supply chains have shown the need to go further and faster. The issues of towns and town centres are complex, deep, long standing and thus require substantive policy development and concerted action by all.
  5. A New Future for Scotland’s Towns, with its vision “Towns and town centres are for
    the wellbeing of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone and everyone has a role to play in making their own town and town centre successful” proposed strengthening Scotland’s approach in three areas: (i) Policy strengthening in the planning area including a moratorium on out of town and decentralised development combined with a stronger statutory support for town centre first enforcement (not only related to retail). This is being proposed to a considerable extent in the draft National Planning Framework 4. It includes an emphasis on the principles of 20 minute neighbourhoods. (ii) The use of fiscal levers (where possible as some are reserved) to ensure that the privileging of decentralised development and operations is ended. (iii) Focused development/policy on getting people to live, work and “play” in town centres e.g. on housing, climate/green space (quality of environment and life), entrepreneurial and local economic development and digital competency amongst others.
  6. These three areas provide a focus for activity to allow towns to flourish. We should be resistant to the siren voices asking simplistically for town centres to mimic out of town development with free car parking and lower charges. Businesses and others in town centres do need help but this has to be achieved by a balancing of the costs across this changed economic landscape (and not just in retail). Non domestic rates require reform and simply cutting them in town centres will not work nor provide councils with the finances they require. Governments have to recognise the changed fiscal base that the internet and online activities have produced and their impacts on the property tax base. The need to respond to the climate emergency requires joined up and sophisticated actions across a range of sectors and activities and means tackling existing developments and behaviours that are harming town centres and the planet.
  7. There is though a lack of alignment within national and local governments and the wider public sector. Scotland’s public sector economy is massive and has the potential to drive town centre change harder and faster but needs to get its own house in order to do so. If all public investment and money followed the Town Centre First Principle and The Place Principle then private capital would soon shift direction (and through levers can be moved in that direction at the same time). There are a lot of emerging policies – Planning, Housing, Economy, Retail, Climate – and they are in danger of tripping each other up because we are not aligning and harnessing their combined power. This is a real opportunity to have a sustained and major impact at the local level and for local communities.

Towns are socially, culturally, economically inclusive; environmentally they are the most sustainable development form and place. The Scottish town is a distinctive feature of our country, adapted for our needs. Towns are unique places, each with their own assets and opportunities. We need leadership and direction to harness their local potential. However, we have neglected them for far too long, and need now to refocus our energy, policy and development on our towns and town centres. We have a sound base but need to do so much more to meet the challenges we face. Towns are the potential solution to so many of our issues, but we need to get more people, more economic and social diversity, more local ownership and more pride back into them. This requires us to be bold and rigorous in our approach to development of all forms. Our towns say much about who we are as individuals and as a country; they need to reflect more clearly our aspirations and ambitions. There is no reason why with collective will we cannot achieve their renaissance.”

The Official Report of the session which includes the above statement and then the following hour plus question and answer session can be accessed here.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.


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