Blog first posted on the Built Environment Forum Scotland, 6 November 2013
A broad-based system of benchmarking together with a typology which groups similar types of town could be valuable tools in efforts to regenerate towns in Scotland. These were the main messages to emerge from an afternoon workshop in Glasgow organised by Scotland’s Towns (www.scotlandstowns.org).
Phil Prentice, East Renfrewshire’s Economic Development and Regeneration Manager, outlined work that has been done in Barrhead to test out a new benchmarking approach. Phil noted that Barrhead was a town of contrasts, with affluent areas but also areas where average male life expectancy was around 60. The town has seen its industrial base disappear, and like so many towns its centre is facing pressures as disposable income is squeezed and retailing has decentralised.
Looking at new indicators
Chris Wade from the Association of Market Towns (www.towns.org.uk) explained in some detail the approach to the benchmarking system for which Barrhead has been the Scottish pilot, and which he has already used in work on small towns in Wales for the Welsh Government. It builds upon a conventional town centre benchmarking which looks at things like pedestrian footfall, the number of commercial functions, the split between comparison and convenience retail outlets, multiple stores and independents and the origins of shoppers.
Despite the wider scope of “Benchmarking – Plus”, Chris stressed the importance of underlying principles: “Involve key stakeholders; keep it simple; let it be affordable; make it comparable.” A key part of the approach is that it captures perceptions of town centre businesses and of shoppers.
Benchmarking Plus includes consideration of the town’s Built Heritage. It also looks at the evening economy. “Self-reliance” is assessed to look at what is available in towns nearby. Access to facilities is considered both by car and by public transport. The method also looks at where the cultural and community facilities and events are located within a town: are they in the town centre, within 400 meters of the centre, or more suburban?
Leadership and Delivery
Structured interviews are done with key leaders, inviting them to self-evaluate the town in terms of leadership and delivery. Delivery looks at town-wide marketing; income and investment; access and car parking; townscape and the public realm; development planning; the property portfolio; the retail vision; retail standards and skills; culture and leisure events; community assets and services. Assessments are on a scale of 1-10.
The Association of Market Towns hopes to roll out this new improved benchmarking system across Scotland through working with Scotland’s Towns. Chris explained that it takes about 8 volunteer days to do the core benchmarking, but time and costs may vary with the size of the town.
Chris noted that car parking is always a hot issue, with traders invariably concerned about the amount, location and cost of available parking spaces. However, by comparing results between towns it can be possible to open up dialogues based on evidence that shows parking provision relative to similar places. He suggested that a 15% vacancy rate in car parks is a figure that suggests the council has got the amount and cost of parking about right.
Where are the town planners?
Professor Leigh Sparks from Stirling University, a member of the task force on town centres that Malcolm Fraser chaired, pondered on what he called the “mood music” currently around the issue of the future of Scottish towns. He felt that many people had unrealistic expectations of what local authorities could do. There seems to be a feeling that the future of town centres should be something that town planners would lead upon, whereas in fact too often plans are primarily legal documents that may not engage with the key issues.
Professor Sparks made a strong case for producing a typology of Scottish towns using well-established statistical methods. This would point up which towns were really comparable, and avoid a situation where towns were not really being compared “like for like”. A typology would focus regeneration efforts better, and facilitate useful sharing of practices and experiences.