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Townscape Harry Phillips on planning for towns and villages

17 Apr 2007

ON THE assumption that there is only so much money to go around, it seems inevitable that the focus for government expenditure should be on cities. They are, after all, the key wealth generators for the economy. But in these circumstances, smaller communities have to take steps to help themselves. A good example of this is Kilmacolm (close to Bridge of Weir, one of the towns ‘under threat’) where the community have reached an agreement with the council (Inverclyde) to take over the redevelopment of a community centre in the village.

The opportunity has been taken to extend the project to include the public realm in the village centre, and create a new public open space. Together with traffic-calming initiatives, this has the potential to win back the village centre for people, rather than it being dominated by through traffic and highway engineering measures. I’m the architect responsible for the development. The project has been made possible by the clever use of a limited company.

Set up by the community (Kilmacolm New Community Centre Ltd or KNCC), it has taken over the project from the council whose financial resources are insufficient to carry the project through as normal capital expenditure. This allows KNCC to receive partial funding from council, lottery funding and other private benefactors.

When it comes to following this model, we must be careful about making generalisations, and my instinct is that each case should be taken on its own merit. Bridge of Weir, for example, has a strong housing market since it is an attractive dormitory for Glasgow, but its village centre leaves much to be desired despite being surrounded by high–income residents. Could it be no–one sees this sort of thing as their problem? I am unconvinced that large interventions by external authorities are always a good thing, and I’m a great believer in small incremental changes (as part of a planned whole) carried out by stakeholders and owners.

I see that as a much healthier and sustainable process than ‘once–only’ investments by Scottish Enterprise, for example, whose legitimacy may last only a few years, take much longer to plan, resource, and complete. Smaller incremental change, by definition, involves more individuals but will be continuous. It does not need arbitrary intervention from upon high, even if it would benefit from financial and political support. I see the current planning system, including heritage controls (from the likes of Historic Scotland) as being obstructive rather than facilitating. They frequently delay projects, resulting in inevitable cost increases or even abandonment. Where are the plans which identify opportunity and encourage or even promote beneficial development by private sector, or even community groups? This is not what a local plan sets out to achieve. It sets out to control, not facilitate.

The Scottish Executive should examine the whole system of development control (as it has been doing recently) and identify how the process can become a facilitating one. There is not enough public money to make things happen, so it has to be achieved by using private investment and it should be encouraged to achieve maximum public benefit, not regarded with suspicion.

At a simple level, councils should be able to identify appropriate small–scale development opportunities, assemble sites using public money, and offer them back to the private market under sensible design controls that form part of a greater whole. This process could include charges for public realm improvements carried out in separate contracts.

It is too late to halt the march of out of town retail centres, but villages and towns must work out how to put the heart back into their centres, to make them places for people, with their own personalities. In my opinion, this can only be achieved by facilitating private investment to rejuvenate faded property, linked with carefully designed public realm action, the control of which is taken out of the hands of the highways engineers.

Village and town centres should be given back to people. And we should not be standing with the begging bowl waiting for hand–outs from government.

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