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Revolution or evolution? A new future for Scotland's town centres
It has been another tumultuous few weeks for our town and city centres. As the pandemic and UK-wide lockdowns continue, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers are soon to disappear from high streets across the country. Neither Debenhams nor Arcadia’s high profile Topshop or Burton brands have been able to secure buyers for their existing retail units, and those stores will now add to the ever-increasing level of vacancy on the high street. These stores alone span 562 retail units totalling 1,389,137 m2 of floor space, or the equivalent of almost 200 football pitches[1]. Symbolically for Scotland, the iconic Jenners department store in Edinburgh is to close after 183 years. Amid all of this bad news comes the publication of ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ by the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks. The report is a follow-up to the Scottish Government’s 2013 Town Centre Action Plan, which itself emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted the Town Centre First principle, and explored themes including town centre living, accessible public services, proactive planning, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies. For a period during the years that followed, there were encouraging signs. Lichfields undertook our own research (Supporting Scotland’s Growth: What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development?) in 2016 which suggested that, whilst the sector had been subject to considerable change, it continued to offer significant growth potential. Indeed, at that time, our research suggested that cities such as Stirling were expected to generate growth of over 20% in terms of retail and leisure GVA. We also found that retail and leisure jobs accounted for over 25% of total jobs across Scotland and contributed to around £88 billion of consumer spending. The sector therefore continues to be pivotal to the future social and economic wellbeing of both Scotland and the wider UK. However, as in the rest of the developed world, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘game changer’ for our town centres. With the growth in online shopping over the last decade or so, most centres had already devised strategies based on re-focusing their offer away from retailing and toward a leisure and food and beverage-based offer. However, successive lockdowns have both acted as a catalyst in speeding up changes in shopping behaviour and impacted very directly on the leisure and hospitality sector, to the extent that it is now quite unclear how many centres will function when restrictions ease. Against this background, ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ acknowledges some of the successes which followed the publication of their 2013 report, but does not shy away from several radical new recommendations which aim to counter the damage caused by COVID-19. Firstly, the Group wants to further strengthen the position of town centres in national planning policy, including by prioritising centres within the next National Planning Framework 4, developing Town Centre Plans with local communities, and placing increased emphasis upon data and the monitoring of town centre health. Together, these initiatives seek to acknowledge that town centres are unique places and have specific characteristics and communities to consider. Secondly, the Group asks the Scottish Government to review current tax, funding and development systems to better reflect different factors such as well-being, fairness and equality and climate change. This is possibly the most radical, and controversial, aspect of the report, and includes actions such as amendments to Non Domestic Rates, the introduction of a digital tax on online shopping, establishing out of town car parking charges and putting in place a total moratorium on out-of-centre retail development. It is difficult to imagine that the Scottish Government will adopt all of these suggestions, but it is interesting that several of the actions lie outside of the planning realm within taxation and broader economic policy. Such a holistic approach is currently being advocated by many parties across the UK. Finally, the Group seeks funding for ‘demonstration projects’ in towns and town centres across the country. This could include housing sector incentivisation in town centres, digital skills development for businesses, strategic acquisitions, and action on climate change. Most of us with a vested interest in the success of our town centres would agree that any additional funding is to be welcomed at the present time, and the Scottish Government’s budget now includes over £80 million for projects to support community regeneration, town centres and ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’. We await the Scottish Government’s response to the Group’s recommendations with interest, but regardless, the report has hopefully already succeeded in emboldening and energising debate on town centre issues across the UK.   [1] https://twitter.com/AltusGroupUK/status/1359157110370664451 Image credit: Daniel0685 via Flickr 

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Proposed Changes to Student Housing Policy at Glasgow City Council: What you need to know
“The potential benefits of purpose built student accommodation must be balanced against any negative impacts arising from significant concentrations that might be harmful to the sustainability of residential communities.” -  SG10: Meeting Housing Needs, Paragraph 2.6 Glasgow is Scotland's largest city and is recognised by students for its vibrant nightlife. The city is home to 5 universities, University of Glasgow, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow School of Art, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as well as number colleges. The University of Glasgow is currently rated 11th in the UK[1] and with living costs approximately 35% cheaper than London[2] it’s a highly desirable location. Glasgow is home to approximately 130,000 students[3], with the 3 major university’s University of Glasgow, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian University attracting 28,000, 22,000 and 20,000 students respectively each year[4]. In February 2019, the Council consulted with students, student housing providers, universities, elected members and community councils on the City’s student accommodation. They have now drafted a revision to Section 2: Student Accommodation of their Supplementary Guidance 10 document (SG10: Meeting Housing Needs).  Consultation on this revision is running until 22nd January 2021. This is within a backdrop of predictions that Glasgow’s student accommodation will continue to increase. The new guidance, if approved, could see new developments for student accommodation in parts of the city restricted. Whilst student accommodation is recognised in essence as residential, it is sui generis in planning terms as there are fundamental differences between traditional residential properties and student accommodation. The council is concerned that the over concentration of student accommodation in certain locations could be harmful to existing residents.   South Partick, Yorkhill and Townhead are all areas of the city in which Glasgow City Council recognise there has been substantial student development and any further development could undermine residential amenity. Therefore, if the policy is approved, further develop in these locations is unlikely to be supported by the council. The current adopted City Plan does not provide specific policy relating to student housing but it does state that the Council will in general support purpose-built student accommodation which achieves a high standard of amenity and an appropriate range of accommodation, and is adjacent to main campuses or in locations with good public transport and active travel connections. The proposed supplementary guidance provides city-wide criteria that all future developments will be assessed against: Will not undermine character and amenity Will not place unsustainable pressure on local amenities and facilities Access to shops, services, healthcare, leisure and community facilities Ground floor uses which are open to everyone Usable open space and enhanced public realm Design which respects the existing arrangements of properties in the area Flexible floor designs to allow for future adaption The applicant will also be required to: Prepare a statement of need to ensure proposals do not lead to an oversupply which could lead to under-performing or vacant accommodation, Prepare an analysis of the locality to demonstrate the relationship between the existing place and its capacity for student accommodation, and Adhere to minimum space standards for study bedrooms. This assessment criteria will most notably change the amount of analysis that will be required by applicants to justify their proposed development. In addition, there is also a greater push on mixed developments. Applications within the city centre and in Strategic Development Framework Areas will be expected to also provide mainstream housing on sites greater than 0.3 hectares as follows: Student housing providers with an interest in Glasgow should take note. Do you have a potential proposal for student housing in South Patrick, Yorkhill and Townhead? If you wish us to make a representation on your behalf to SG10: Meeting Housing Needs or if you are interested in student housing development in Glasgow, or elsewhere in Scotland, please get in touch with Lichfields.   [1] QS World University Rankings 2020 [2] Expatistan, December 2020 [3] Glasgow City Council, SG10: Meeting Housing Needs [4] Expat.com, August 2019Image credit: Adam Marikar via Unsplash

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