If Scotland doesn’t prioritise its town centres, there is a danger of cutting off their lifeblood.

This warning comes from Mhairi Donaghy, Associate Director of the Scottish Futures Trust.

Her comment came after publication of a new report produced after the Scottish Government had asked the trust to look at the benefits and barriers to town-centre living (TCL).

The study says: “TCL is a key policy aspiration for the Scottish Government, local authorities and a wide range of other public, private and third-sector bodies.

“It builds upon strong foundations of strategic place planning and supports key principles around inclusion, wellbeing and sustainability.

“The development of housing that brings more people to live within our town centres can have a major role in creating strong and sustainable places - as well as supporting key policy aims around active travel, affordable and independent living, walkable neighbourhoods, the wellbeing economy, net zero, and the re-use of existing built assets.

“TCL can underpin the resilience of many of Scotland’s places, but it needs to be done in a way that delivers the right homes, in the right places, for the right reasons.

“There has, however, been limited TCL activity across Scotland and some towns where there has been little, or even no, new town-centre housing development for a very long time.”

Key findings in the report include:

Misbalanced cost-benefit analysis

The range of positive impacts and benefits of TCL are not acknowledged or incorporated into project appraisal - particularly not into the quantitative cost-benefit analysis that project funders typically require. TCL projects are typically more expensive, riskier and take longer to deliver than other housebuilding options. TCL projects also tend to be smaller in scale due to the nature of project conversions and infill site developments – it is therefore harder to achieve viability on a financial basis, limiting private-sector interest.

Affordable housing v affordable living

There is also a failure to acknowledge the difference between affordable housing and affordable living – the latter taking account of the quick, easy and free access to a wide range of facilities, services and activities that are typically located in a town centre. However, the focus of Scottish Government policy has been on delivering affordable housing, with rent and purchase price being the sole determinant. The location of the house has no bearing on its affordability, even when it is located in a place that has limited and relatively expensive public transport connections, and a limited activity and service offering.

The trust highlights the amount of vacant office floorspace in our town centres is likely to increase substantially in the very near future as a result of changes in working patterns brought on through the pandemic “work from home” arrangements. Public-sector bodies are actively looking to consolidate and co-locate, and private sector businesses are exploring opportunities for best value use of their spaces. This could substantially increase the supply of vacant premises and creates an opportunity to repurpose for TCL at scale.

Mhairi Donaghy, of the trust, pointed out that Scottish society was built around towns and villages.

She said: “From the traditional clan system to today’s modern settlements, we’re a sociable nation that thrives on community spirit.

“And, yet, most new-build houses and developments are located so far out of town centres that people must rely on private vehicles to access the facilities and services they regularly need.

“More people living in town centres means more support for local businesses. It means keeping bus routes active. It means a safer environment, thanks to passive policing. These all make a town more attractive to visitors – which, in turn, means more benefits to the local economy.

“From an environmental perspective, people living in towns often walk or use buses to access local services, reducing their reliance on cars. And repurposing vacant buildings into housing, rather than building new, will help reduce our carbon emissions. Both of these are vital if Scotland hopes to meet its ambitious net zero target.

“Increased walking also leads to better physical and mental health, which, in turn, may reduce strain on our National Health Service.”

But the Associate Director pointed out that - thanks to the barriers preventing widespread investment in town-centre regeneration, of Scotland’s 479 settlements with a resident population of over 1,000 people - just 50 places have delivered new town-centre housing in the past five years.

She added: “Many of us greatly enjoy being part of vibrant, thriving communities. But if we don’t prioritise our town centres, we are in danger of cutting off their lifeblood. To keep them alive and reap their benefits, we must use them – and we hope that the recommendations we set out in our report can help everyone involved in this process to do more, and do better.”

Dean Gowans, Director of Aberdeen property company, City Restoration Project commented:

The town-centre living (TCL) report highlights the opportunity available to our city to reinvigorate our central district through conversion of our historic sites and building assets.

It also underlines the many hurdles that must be overcome to achieve the major transformative effects of TCL development activity.

City Restoration Project has a passion for city-centre regeneration and our appreciation of historic architecture drives our sympathetic refurbishment of listed commercial property into beautiful homes.

Our objective is to undertake a role in the revival of the city centre by helping create vibrant communities and a stronger local economy.

We design our projects in such a way that the vast majority of the structure is retained, thereby ensuring the retention of the existing embodied carbon and reducing the project’s environmental impact.

We must also appreciate the numerous additional benefits such as convenient and low-cost living, improved connectivity, inclusion and well-being, utilisation of existing infrastructure, enhancing safety and resilience of the city.

TCL development activity is indeed complex, but not impossible. We hope the points raised in the report will foster discussion amongst stakeholders and act as a catalyst to raise further awareness of the importance and huge benefits of repopulating our city centre, in order to shift remaining local indifferent, or even negatively-held perceptions of city living.

Conversion of historic assets can be complex, time-consuming and financially risky.

Anything that can be done, for the collective benefit of the city, to reduce the complexity and associated costs, in order to smooth the development process must be looked at.

Prioritising planning applications and streamlining of the multiple processes to gain faster obligatory permissions from local authorities would be a good start.

This would allow for quicker commencement and completion of projects that will, in turn, facilitate more development.

Considering the inherent robustness yet restrictions of historic buildings, and the architecturally-significant features often contained throughout, we must be careful not to adopt overly onerous building standards, which could render heritage building projects non-viable.

We must be flexible, embrace new technologies, collaborate effectively and be solutions-orientated to deliver projects.

Mortgage providers and funding partners should also reassess their risk appetite for lending to purchasers of city-centre property by increasing loan to value on finance products in line with the rest of the market.

There is demand for city-centre living in Aberdeen and this type of regeneration can only cultivate prosperity.

Adrian Watson, Chief Executive of Aberdeen Inspired commented:

Aberdeen City Council and partners have had a long-standing commitment to city-centre living through the principles of the Aberdeen city-centre masterplan.

There have been some great exemplars of residential development playing out on our main thoroughfare of Union Street and environs, but in keeping with most other large towns and cities these are sporadic and more needs to be offered in support.

As the city centre business-improvement district, we have long held that city-centre living ought to be a key strand in revitalising the heart of Aberdeen.

It is well documented that the large acreage of former retail space is unlikely to be returned to this purpose to anywhere near the same level.

Between public and private-sector partners, we must look at how we can overcome the age-old barriers that have limited the viability of city centre living to date.

For instance, funding gaps, obtaining the right consents and lack of data can all put off private-sector investors and developers.

It is imperative that local policy prioritises the city centre for residential development, as having this “captive audience” brings life and with that trade to the city centre. Much needed by our businesses. It keeps bus routes active and helps create a safer and more welcoming environment, which, in turn, attracts more visitors.

Moreover, there are environmental benefits, with less car usage and the lowering of an individual’s carbon footprint, and the move towards the 20-minute neighbourhood which has the potential to re-purpose existing vacant properties into public/social services, such as health or education, to cater for the growing residential population.

The town-centre living report is useful in highlighting the barriers, and we need the collective wisdom from across the sectors to mitigate the challenge to developers around our city centre potentially proving more expensive, a riskier proposition and often taking longer than other housebuilding options.

City-centre living remains an integral part of our masterplan and, although the challenges are often complex, we need to create the environment in Aberdeen that will make it a more viable proposition and get much-needed life back into the heart of our city and soon.

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