Taking town centres beyond retail

Malcolm Fraser is an architect and founder of Malcolm Fraser Architects. He was chosen to chair the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres, which is due to publish its results in spring 2013. He spoke to Clare Goff about the review’s findings so far and why he’s the antithesis of Mary Portas.

Why were you chosen to lead the Scottish town centre review?
I, like many architects, spend much of my life complaining about how government gets things wrong and puts barriers in the way of good development. So when a senior cabinet minister asks you to help do something about it, it’s hard to say no. I’ve been critical of certain government initiatives so I have not been chosen as a yes-man! I can be quite spiky and I think the Scottish Government wanted to see that spikiness used on their behalf. And I think we’re on the cusp of change. We’ve had 60 or 70 years of believing that driving yourself around in a metal box from suburb to business park to out of town shopping centre represented the brave new future for our built environment. But it disconnects you from the world. And then we spend our holidays going to places where we feel the community and the richness and where we are able to walk to the park or the beach. Why can’t we live like that all year round? I cycle the ten-minute journey to work and it invigorates me but it also means that I meet friends on the way or someone with some news of interest to my business. The creativity that you get in a city or town is not something you can get in a business park and it feeds into business success.

Are you a Scottish Mary Portas?
Absolutely not! Her approach was very retail-focused and, to me, a bit too aware of its own celebrity shininess. We might include some mentoring-type initiatives but apart from that we’re looking at a different approach. Retail is not the single solution for town centres. My interest is in the whole ‘offer’ in town centres – the people living there, offices, the parks, the libraries, culture, cinema and shops. To get these things working well is in the interest of retailers too, and if more of us are shopping virtually we need other things to take up the slack. Out of town centres don’t provide the richness and diversity of towns. The Portas Review has followed-on with some additional work on business rates etc but we don’t want to retrofit things to our review, we want to be far more ambitious and include all those things from the start. We also want to avoid a top-down attitude, parachuting into communities and telling them what to do. We don’t want competitions for small amounts of funding for makeovers. We’re about altering legislation – making small changes to the ways rates are charged for example – small things that will allow towns to do it themselves. I’m interested in bottom-up change.

You’ve described town centres as the true eco-towns. What do you mean by that?
We’ve all heard the marketing line, usually attached to spin some car-dependant development built on farmland, but with some wee windmills attached to the houses. But when building these supposed eco-towns you leave the existing nearby town to rot, where the buses, the sewers, the schools and services are all already in place. That town is our true eco-town.

Clare Goff

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine

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