Why can't we live in town centres again?

People walking across a road in Glasgow in front of a row of houses and cars.
Published: 17/04/2018

We are developing and inviting a conversation on town centre living and a caring place through our social media channels and on this website. These conversations touch upon the ten principles of a caring place, as seen on the report. In this blog Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, writes about housing choice. 

We all used to live in town centres, why can’t we live there again? Perhaps it’s time to look at our house as a commodity rather than a castle?

Housing is a very complex thing, but it is also a fundamental requirement for all of us.

It is also critical that a well functioning housing market supports economic growth, encourages social mobility and allows for upsizing and downsizing as well as creating jobs in planning, finance, construction, banking and legal sectors.

Housing products should also support the needs of the population but this is where I think we are missing an opportunity. The current investment led approach isn’t delivering on the potential innovative solutions that both our ageing demographic and millennials need.

Town centres at the cross roads

At the same time our town centres are facing the perfect storm. Many are at a crossroads or face complex challenges; the continued drift of talent and youth to city economies, structural changes in retail where we use tablets, online, click and collect, out of town and destination shops, the ongoing impact of the economic recession, dysfunctional commercial property and housing markets, welfare reform, less disposable local income and a fast shrinking public sector.

There is no silver bullet solution but a good start might be to link these two problems together.

Space to play with

Towns already have the required infrastructure and utilities. A lot of retail units will continue to close, the public sector estate will shrink and a lot of space above ground floor offices and shops retail is already currently fallow. There is a lot of space to play with in all of that. Perhaps some start of life and end of life housing solutions blending new communities together and bringing innovation to create better places.

Places that deliver on low carbon and on social justice, create appropriate local housing options as well as delivering on social and economic outcomes. It all drives inclusion and new opportunity, whilst putting vibrancy, footfall and activity back into our town centres.

Scotland’s Town Centre First Principle is beginning to gain traction, so could we ensure that every Strategic Housing Investment Plan, Local Housing Strategy and Local Development Plan had an element of well informed town centre living? Could funding from the Affordable Housing Supply Programme be used to mainstream this approach? Add in commuted sums, developer contributions, private housing options and we could make a start.

A ready made solution?

So is this a ready made solution? Probably not yet. We need to be more explicit on what town centre living can offer. Perhaps a learning town, or a caring town is a good place to start? Exploring how a community of a mixed demographic can work together to create a new dynamic – starter accommodation for locally employed enablers, high quality housing for the ageing - ensuring care and education, alongside innovation and production is blended together.

And it is all sustainable and close to amenities such as public services, education, health, transport and leisure.

Affordable housing

The highly commendable approach from the Scottish Government committing to building an extra 50,000 affordable homes is an excellent start. We must push this further to think about cooperative solutions, private solutions, housing that can be treated as a commodity to meet the needs of your current circumstances.

From a flat share when you are a student, your own flat for your early career, then a family home, a downsize apartment and a semi sheltered or sheltered option later. We need to widen options and become more open to renting as opposed to ownership, or indeed a blend of tenures at different life stages.

In partnership with the Scottish Government and Architecture and Design Scotland we are exploring the 'A caring place' concept.

About Scotland's Towns Partnership

At Scotland's Town Partnership there is a wealth of evidence tools, case studies, events and funding advice to help you make a difference. Phil Prentice is the Chief Officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership and new Programme Director for Scotland’s Improvement Districts.

With almost 25 years experience in the field of Economic Development, Phil is focused on helping improve the economic and social fortunes of Scotland’s cities, towns and smaller settlements across the country.

Header image credit: George Kourounis

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We are developing and inviting a conversation on a caring place through our social media channels and on this website. If you'd like to share you knowledge and experiences of what it takes to design for a caring place, get in touch.

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