Context 138 - March 2015

16 C O N T E X T 1 3 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 5 LEIGH SPARKS A sense of place The future of Scotland’s towns and retail high streets depends on linking culture, heritage and storytelling to present a distinctive sense of themselves to residents and visitors. The last few years have brought a dawning realisation that all is not well in our high streets and towns.The scale of the problem has rather shaken even those who assumed the situation would right itself.With average retail high street vacancy rates in 2010–2012 exceeding 15 per cent and in some towns getting close to 50 per cent, it became a problem everyone could see. The reaction from the government was to ask Mary Portas to review the high street. Bill Grimsey, a former retailer, set himself up to present an independent ‘beyond Portas’ report. The Scottish Government commissioned a National Review of Town Centres (for a comparison of these reports, see Findlay and Sparks, 2014). Other interested bodies, some professional, some governmental, have also had their say. High streets and town centres have become big news. For some, this concern is focused on the short-term impacts of the recession, as the state of high streets is blamed on the financial crisis and its continuing reverbera- tions. However many have come to realise that the issues confronting the high street are neither short-term nor limited to retailing. For decades we have been encouraging decentralisation of many activities, not just retail, and providing fewer and fewer reasons for people to visit the high street or the town centre. Schools, cinemas, hotels, offices,workshops, as well as retail, are nowmainly found outside the town centre.Add to that the irresistible rise of the internet since the turn of the century and we should not be surprised that high street retail is in crisis. Beyond that, it should be clear that the relationship between the high street and the town (or town centre) has been both ruptured and misconceived.The problems of the high street can not be treated in isolation to the town centre or the town, despite the approach in the Portas report. Retailing is a component of a place, but not the only element. Town centres need multiple and diverse activities to support and nurture them.As we have allowed the nature of towns to alter and have decentralised much of our everyday activities, so the high street has suffered. This is not just due to the recession, and coming out of recession will not bring a resolution. Such changes have affectedmany high streets and towns across Britain, though not all have been affected equally. Some high streets have proved remarkably resilient in the face of this turmoil (seeWrigley and Brookes, 2014) and have survived or even prospered.The reasons for this are not well understood, tending to comprise a variety of aspects in different places, but related to the focus on multiple reasons for footfall for a place, the investment by some retailers, service providers and others in developing the street or centre, and by the protection of or focus on, a sense of distinctiveness about a town or high street, making it more attractive as a destination. As consumers have changed and developed more of both a convenience culture and a leisure culture, so too our high streets and town centres have to adapt to these new demands. Within Scotland, the emphasis has been more on the town centre and the wider town than directly on the retail issues of the high street alone.The Fraser Review ofTown Centres proposed six key themes to the government: town centre living, vibrant local economies, enterprising communities, accessible public services, proactive plan- ning and digital towns.The government has responded by agreeing aTown Centre First principle with COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), and focusing and aligning internal and external activities on these themes (Scottish Government, 2013, 2014). The intention is that by focusing on the wider issues of the town and town centre and how they work, activities will be concentrated and centralised, and more people will be given more reasons to take part in their town. At the heart of this approach is the view that people associate with places and have an affinity for them.This is the belief of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), the go-to body for information and activity about the In Stromness, Orkney, investment in the built environment has brought new and decaying buildings back to life, using historically accurate materials and creating a sense of the place.