MSPs call for new retail park tax to help save Scotland’s town centres


A PLEA is being made today by Scottish politicians for action to halt the decline of town centres.

The call comes from MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s economy and fair work committee, which has published a new report following an inquiry.

Committee convener Claire Baker said that vibrant, thriving town centres must be a priority – and change is needed.

The politicians concluded that the planning system needs to be strengthened to ensure no new developments unfairly compete with town-centre provision. 

There should also be a rebalancing of the cost of doing business to make town centres more competitive and to support investment in them.

The committee says every town in Scotland should have its own town plan – a long-term strategic vision for the future that recognises the unique nature of every town, their histories and the community that brings them together. 

Ms Baker said: “This report should signal a line in the sand for how we support, develop and prioritise investment in our town centres. 

“We all know a town centre that has empty shops, a lack of investment and few thriving businesses.

“Throughout this inquiry we heard that, although the pandemic accelerated trends towards online shopping, people really care about the future of their town centre and what is on their doorstep. 

“The positive benefits that a thriving town centre can bring are clear – not just economically but socially and culturally as well.

“As we move into a challenging period for our retail sector, our committee is unified in its call that vibrant, thriving town centres must be prioritised. 

“This report recognises that the only way to do that is through changing how we support these developments through various measures from planning to non-domestic rates. 

“This report signals that change is needed. We know there is no quick fix, but unless we start now then we won’t be able to halt the accelerated decline of recent years we’ve seen already in too many communities across Scotland.”

Specific measures suggested by the economy and fair work committee today include:

  • Strengthening the National Planning Framework 4 to ensure that any proposed developments can demonstrate that town-centre sites have been pursued and thoroughly evaluated and that developments will have no adverse impact on town centres and will not compete with town-centre provision.
  • The overarching principle must be rebalancing the cost of doing business in town centres versus out-of-town sites. Approaches that could be considered include giving councils the power to levy an out-of-town development premium or a business-rates surcharge which could then be used for town-centre regeneration.
  • The current non-domestic rates (NDR) system acts as a disincentive when trying to attract businesses back to town centres. For firms already located in town centres, the current NDR system acts as a disincentive to invest in already-occupied property, as any investment leads to an increase in NDR. The committee consistently heard that the current system works against investment and growth in town-centre retail and that the NDR system should be rebalanced to support town-centre development.
  • Transparency of beneficial ownership of town-centre property and land, and absentee owners can still be a problem, particularly where an individual lives or is based overseas. It is the committee’s strong view that all property and landowners should be contactable and there should be clarity on who the owner is. 
  • Local authorities have a range of powers available to tackle derelict or dangerous buildings, but they are not used as frequently or proactively as the committee would like. There can be a reluctance to resort to those statutory powers, in part due to a lack of resources to carry actions through. The committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to reform and modernise compulsory purchase orders.

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