The slow death of town centres has many causes.
Local Government has not helped with its strangulating, revenue generating parking and traffic policies. It hasn’t helped by abandoning traditional buildings in favour of flashy new headquarters and other PFI developments. Central government has not helped by the ridiculous impost of VAT on the repair, maintenance and alteration of existing buildings and by allowing multinational online and out of town retailers and the ubiquitous coffee shops to compete on a massively beneficial tax basis with local businesses. The Planning system has allowed and encouraged tawdry out of town shopping with easy parking facilities. If local business were encouraged and promoted, instead of profits being siphoned off for the benefit of the financial manipulators that we all so love, they would be retained, spent and invested locally.
A city like Edinburgh has just about enough financial resilience to survive despite these pressures but it would be vastly better off without them. The smaller Scottish burghs, littered with abandoned and historic municipal buildings, schools and other institutions and creeping dereliction in the high streets, are dying.
Undoubtedly retail would be having to adapt very drastically to the changes brought about by the Internet whatever happened. The return of residential life to town centres is a welcome trend but it could go so much further. The political clout of the house builders is constantly directed toward easing up the restrictions on developing greenfield sites. The intricacies of niche development in existing buildings has never appealed to these big well oiled machines. However with a bit of rebalancing and the creation of level playing fields instead of the exploitation of green fields, life could be breathed back into our towns and cities.
Belatedly this seems to be coming onto the political agenda. Click here to read the 4 July BBC article on Saving Scotland’s Town Centres.
– David Gibbon, RICS Conservation Accredited Building Surveyor