SPF conference

Private finance ‘key’ to reviving town centres

Chris Stewart: ‘we need to realise our opportunities’ (pic: Terry Murden)

A new financing model for local authorities that engages more with the private sector is needed to help revive struggling town and city centres, a conference of property specialists was told.

Property investor and developer Chris Stewart together with John Alexander, the leader of Dundee City Council, said the tax and planning systems need a re-think and that progress will rely on more involvement by the private sector.

Addressing the Scottish Property Federation’s annual conference in Edinburgh, Mr Stewart said towns and cities suffer from the “blunt tool” of business rates and continual cutbacks in services, with planning investment down 26% and street cleaning 35% over ten years.

“My concern is that we miss the opportunity to re-position our cities,” he said. “I hear a lot about 20 minute neighbourhoods,” he said…. “but [these figures] says where our cities rank in the priority list.”

Planning and transport were issues requiring further attention, he said, noting that often there was interest from the market in making a move into urban centres but there was no capacity to deliver. With no late services, the night time economy suffers.. “and now we hear about workplace parking levies”.

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He called for action to encourage a more diverse range of businesses into city centres to add to the mix of broadly leisure-based operators.

Mr Stewart, who heads the urban renewal company, Chris Stewart Group, noted the progress in Dundee through working with private businesses and other non-government agencies, but he said there were other areas, particularly in the west of Scotland where this collaboration is not happening.

“Dundee has been a great success story, with a great vision,” he said. “But we need to have that same approach replicated so we can see realise the opportunities for our cities.”

While the big cities, to a degree, will find a route to capital, he feared for smaller towns where local entrepreneurs cannot find the required support for their projects. He said a small towns fund would help fill the void. He also urged Scotland’s pension funds to look at investing in urban developments.

He said afterwards that a senior planning official had been appointed in Manchester by a panel that included private sector representatives. “This is an example of collaboration delivering on strategy,” he said.

John Alexander, who heads up the Cities Alliance, told delegates that 82% of his council’s budget now came from Holyrood, leaving little room for local initiatives and local authorities at the mercy of the government.

“I have never set a budget that has been in surplus,” he said.

John Alexander: ‘we need a re-think’ (pic: Terry Murden)

He added that managing the decline in funding was becoming critical, not only in the provision of services but in the opportunities for growth.

“We are at the bone, if not the marrow,” he said. “We need to look at the whole set up on tax. We penalise city centres to the benefit of out of town parks. We need to be braver on taxation. The set-up we have at the moment doesn’t work.”

He agreed with Mr Stewart that “there is a need to back up strategy with meaningful interventions”.

He added: “Fundamentally, we to re-think our cities and what they are for.”

See also: Councils must heed M&S message on town centres

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