A new funding model for local authorities that engages more with the private sector is needed to help revive struggling town centres, a conference of property experts has said.
Property investor and developer Chris Stewart, as well as John Alexander, the leader of Dundee City Council, said tax and planning systems needed to be overhauled and progress would depend on greater private sector involvement.
Speaking to the Scottish Property Federation’s annual conference in Edinburgh, Mr Stewart said cities were suffering from the ‘blunt tool’ of commercial rates and continued service cuts, with planning investment down by 26 % and street cleaning by 35% over ten years.
“My concern is that we are missing the opportunity to reposition our cities,” he said. “I hear a lot about 20-minute quarters,” he said…. “but [these figures] says where our cities rank in the list of priorities.
Planning and transportation are issues that need more attention, he said, noting that the market was often interested in moving to urban centers, but there was no capacity to deliver. With no late services, the night economy suffers…”and now we hear about workplace parking charges”.
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He called for measures to encourage a more diverse range of businesses in city centers to add to the mix of largely leisure-oriented operators.
Mr Stewart, who runs urban renewal company, Chris Stewart Group, noted the progress being made in Dundee working with private companies and other non-government agencies, but said there were other areas , especially in the west of Scotland, where this collaboration is not an event.
“Dundee has been a great achievement, with a great vision,” he said. “But we need to replicate that same approach so we can see the opportunities for our cities realized.”
While big cities, to some extent, will find a way to capital, he fears for smaller towns where local entrepreneurs can’t find the support they need for their projects. He said a small town fund would help fill the void. He also urged Scottish pension funds to consider investing in urban developments.
He said afterwards that a senior planning official had been appointed to Manchester by a panel including representatives from the private sector. “It’s an example of collaboration implementing strategy,” he said.
John Alexander, who heads 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 government.
“I never overbudgeted,” he said.
He added that managing declining funding was becoming critical, not only in service delivery but also in opportunities for growth.
“We’re down to the bone, if not the marrow,” he said. “We have to look at the whole taxation. We are penalizing city centers in favor of suburban parks. We need to be more courageous when it comes to taxation. The configuration we have at the moment does not work.
He agreed with Mr. Stewart that “there is a need to support the strategy with meaningful interventions”.
He added: “Fundamentally we need to rethink our cities and what they are for.”
See also: Councils must heed M&S message on town centers