Destination High Street – restoring vibrancy to Scotland’s towns

BEFS Trustee Jocelyn Cunliffe reflects on the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland’s and Scottish Civic Trust’s joint conference ‘Destination High Street – restoring vibrancy to Scotland’s towns’.

The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) and the Scottish Civic Trust (SCT) organised a joint conference on Wednesday 7 November 2018 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

The conference was chaired by Colin McLean, Chair of SCT, who pointed out that how we shop has been changed for ever, whether we use out-of-town outlets or the internet. He reminded the conference that there had been a series of high profile reports, including ‘The Portas review: the future of our high streets’ (2011), and Scotland’s Town Centre Review (2013) to which the Government responded with a Town Centre Action Plan. Most recently the Royal Society of Public Health has published ‘Health on the High Street’.

Jennifer Novotny, the SCT civic connections project worker, presented a paper and a film (by Napier University students) made as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, by girls on the Action for Children Heritage and Inclusion Programme.  This project mentors young women from ethnic minority backgrounds. They had looked at ‘Our High Street’ and carried out a high street scavenger hunt.  They were asked to identify something ‘I like about my high street’ and listed lots of variable shops that are accessible and provide everything you need, different options of food takeaways and included ‘its handy for everyone’.  They suggested an open to all space to share their culture and meet other people as role models.

Simon Green examined the architectural value of the high street. His definition of architectural value, ‘a slippery fish’, was demonstrated, rather than defined. Lots of buildings are worth nothing because of a heritage deficit. Major buildings are altered or demolished because of the perceived value of the land. Historic Environment Scotland (HES) put value on places through designations, such a listing. Simon looked at the big picture. He defined the High Street as the principal street of our burghs and towns. He suggested that historically it had three elements, the kirk (church), the tolbooth (the town council) and the mercat cross (commerce). Our high streets have changed all the time, including to improve sanitation. Churches may not be the force they were but they are crucial to the burgh, as is civic pride reflected in the fine municipal buildings, law courts, libraries, schools, banks and post offices built in the past. Stores also built prestigious premises. He questioned why do we have to get rid of cars, pointing to the activity associated with people stopping for a short time in Callendar (would they be there if the town had a by-pass?). We close high streets for a run, so why not close them for other events? Civic pride needs to be re-engendered and key buildings of value need to be looked after; high streets are not only about shopping but about living, working and community life.

Susan O’Connor took as her theme the high street as the centre of community life. She compared retail spaces and civic spaces, ownership and means of access. We learned of an elaborate procession which took place in 1872 to celebrate the opening of the new Renfrew Town Hall. The men took part in the processions and the women provided the audience.

The keynote address ‘Thinking the Unthinkable…’  was given by Professor Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at Stirling University and Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership. He was given the title and decided to work with it saying, ‘It is unthinkable that we are abandoning our heritage in the way we are. It is equally unthinkable that we can go back to the past’.  He talked about town centres, not the high street, saying ‘It is the place, the identity of that town’. Decentralising is not just in retailing.  Local authority offices and businesses that were formerly in town centres have moved to the periphery. He identified a structural revolution in retailing, but noted that online retailers are moving to physical retailing. There were ideas, such as getting local authority head offices back into towns; bring people in and retail will follow. We also have to build on towns’ stories, think of towns as places of interactions, not just transactions. He suggested that the size and shape of town centres will be smaller, there will be a re-balancing and that we have got to start managing our places better.

Euan Curtis of Glasgow City Council showed images of and discussed projects in Glasgow, at Barras, Shawlands, Govan and Parkhead, where public money has been spent through conservation regeneration schemes, townscape heritage initiatives, in association with the Commonwealth Games and City Deal. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Opportunities need to be exploited; listen to locals and be flexible; funding is a huge issue – these schemes benefited from a more positive funding situation at Glasgow City Council (GCC) than that which exists now, where there is no money to leverage funds from HES or HLF. He pointed out that Shawlands was not a poor area, but it was not rich either and the public realm scheme and efforts to get businesses to work together in relation to commercial refuse led to other shop-owners taking an interest and the formation of a Shawlands Business Improvement District.

Diarmid Lawlor’s topic was ‘Public Money: Repopulating the High Street’. He examined relationships based around care, ‘The Caring Place’; caring for the people and caring for the place. ‘The Caring Place’ is at the centre of a circle consisting of a sense of place (familiar surroundings), a sense of purpose (stuff to do), a sense of support (from people, neighbours) and a sense of worth (feeling wanted). Instead of chasing new money we should look creatively at making better use of what we have. Young people are the community of the future and he showed examples of innovative projects with family focused neighbourhoods and intergenerational complexes with space for children and for old people.

The final speaker, Leona Stewart, a Scottish Glass artist, formed Bright Light Arts, an Ayr based community interest company in 2017, to be able to apply for grants to deliver artist led crafts workshops and prop-making sessions for Ayr’s Day O’ the Deid procession through Ayr town centre at the end of Tamfest. The procession with colourful costumes, amazing props and samba drumming was wonderfully vibrant and involved children and adults across the community. Leona deserves a huge amount of praise for her work, which sadly she recognises is financially not sustainable.

In summary, the event brought together a varied and interesting set of speakers. What now? The built heritage is clearly a key part of the future. Once the High Street was handy for everyone, now it is handy for no one. Some sixty years ago things were allowed to go wrong when shops moved out of town and were followed by business parks and industrial estates. How can we show that we love our communities, places, town centres, and work on their behalf to make them vital resources and physically and socially sustainable? Central and local government and civic society all have a part to play.

Jocelyn Cunliffe