This blog is one in a series of guest blogs written by the Housing and Place Delivery Forum members, reflecting on Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4).

Scottish Futures Trust’s Mhairi Donaghy sheds light on the importance of town centre living and its positive impact on the local economy, carbon emissions and physical and mental health.

Scottish society was built around its towns and villages. 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.

Late last year, Scottish Government asked Scottish Futures Trust to look at the benefits of and barriers to town centre living following the release of its Town Centre Action Plan Review. Encouraging more people to live in town centres is a key policy aspiration for the Scottish Government, local authorities and a number of their partners, underpinning priorities around sustainability, net zero, inclusion and wellbeing.

We worked with Architecture & Design Scotland, Scottish Land Commission and other key partner agencies in a Short Life Working Group to explore the challenges in delivering town centre living and learned the benefits extend far beyond what we could have expected.

The report, available here, starts with a review of the policy landscape and notes the positive and supportive context (via place, planning, housing and other disciplines).  There is potential for NPF4 to be a ‘game changer’ for town centre living with several new supportive policies, including the requirement for Local Development Plans to provide a proportion of their Local Housing Land Requirements in city and town centres and to be proactive in identifying opportunities to support residential development.

The report also presents a series of successful projects and programmes delivered across Scotland in recent years.  It identifies interconnected barriers and challenges that make TCL projects difficult to deliver before concluding with recommendations for the next steps over the short, medium and longer term.

More people living in town centres means more support for local businesses. It means keeping bus routes active, and it means a safer environment, thanks to passive policing. These all make a town more attractive to visitors, which 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 ones, will help reduce our carbon emissions. Both are vital if Scotland hopes to meet its ambitious net zero targets. Increased walking also leads to better physical and mental health, which may reduce strain on our National Health Service.

Additionally, living in town centres is often more cost-effective for people – not just in terms of affordable housing but in the broader context of affordable living.

The concept of affordable living takes the question of cost one step further than simply looking at rent or mortgage payments. It also considers the cost, time and effort of accessing essential services such as education, employment, or groceries. It reflects on the twenty-minute neighbourhood concept of easy access to facilities and services.

The analysis found that 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 due to the barriers preventing widespread investment in town centre regeneration.

Admittedly, developers looking to offer housing options within town centres find they are typically more expensive, riskier, and take longer than other housebuilding options. Town centre projects also tend to be smaller, providing less financial return. However, our report presents success stories from all over Scotland that councils and the wider housing sector can learn from, to improve current proposals and support the delivery of new schemes.

The overall gains outweigh the risks and costs if we consider the wider societal benefits, such as improved wellbeing and a reduction in carbon footprint. These advantages will take longer to appear, but the long-term rewards for Scotland and its communities can’t be discounted.

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.

On 24 April 2023, CaCHE, in association with the Housing and Place Delivery Forum, is hosting a conference entitled Delivering NPF4: hat will it take? Register your place here.

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