Town Centres

Question Time — Scottish Executive — Rural Affairs and the Environment – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 28 June 2007.

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. Michael Matheson (Falkirk West) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Government what is being done to improve the living environment in town centres. (S3O-370)

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has provided local agencies with a range of powers and resources that they are using to deliver safer, cleaner and more attractive town centres. The quality of life initiative is being used to improve street lighting and closed-circuit television provision. The antisocial behaviour legislation, supported by £120 million over four years, is enabling swift and effective action to be taken against a range of low-level offending in town centres, from antisocial driving and noise nuisance to vandalism and littering.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

The minister will be aware of the problems in town centres that are frequently used for large gatherings of car cruisers—as is the case in Falkirk town centre, where up to 1,000 cars can gather in an evening. Many constituents who have contacted me find that their lives are being made a misery because of the modifications that have been made to many of the cars' exhaust systems, which cause considerable noise pollution in the town centre. The police tell me that they have limited powers to deal with the issue in the criminal justice system. Is the minister prepared to consider using environmental regulations to try to tackle the noise pollution problem?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Mr Matheson has campaigned tirelessly on that issue and there is certainly a problem to be addressed. Unfortunately, prohibition of the adaptation of vehicle exhausts—which is a possibility, as it is exhaust noise that causes a great deal of problem—is a reserved matter, strangely enough. That came as news to me as well, but a range of other actions can be taken. Part 10 of the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004 includes provisions that allow the police to seize vehicles that are being driven antisocially, and that power has been used successfully to seize 170 vehicles and to issue 1,917 warning notices, to the end of September last year.

Mr Matheson is right to say that other things can be done. For example, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 can be used, or a local authority can apply to the courts for an antisocial behaviour order to restrict a persistently antisocial driver from a particular area or even to prohibit the individual concerned from driving a particular vehicle.

My colleague, the Minister for Community Safety, will visit Tayside Police in the coming months to see the new seizure of vehicles initiative that they have introduced. However, we plan to take a fresh look at the community safety and antisocial behaviour strategy to determine how it can be strengthened and improved. Mr Matheson's point is important and will be included in that process.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Michael Matheson mentioned one of Scotland's larger towns. In the part of the world that I represent, smaller towns such as Wick, Stornoway, Buckie, Dingwall and Dunoon also face significant environmental challenges, particularly relating to dereliction of buildings. Will the Government, in the spirit of consensus and co-operation that has been evident from its members in recent weeks, consider the proposals that the Labour Party made at the election for town centre regeneration trusts to fund regeneration? Will it also consider whether local authorities have sufficient powers to tackle dereliction quickly and effectively and whether they have sufficient compulsory purchase powers when that ultimately becomes necessary in order to make the environmental improvements that many of our smaller towns urgently require?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am always willing to consider good ideas wherever they come from: that is true of my colleagues, as well.

There are a variety of moves afoot to assist the regeneration of town centres. As Mr Peacock points out, it is not simply a matter of behaviour, although there are considerable problems of behaviour that can be encouraged out of existence. It is extremely important that premises do not remain empty for too long. The radical, exciting and, I am sure, worthwhile initiative on business rates that is coming may do even more on that than any town centre regeneration trust could.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

Welcome though the business rate reductions are, they will not be a panacea that will improve the quality of town centres—the Labour Party as well as the Conservative party had proposals on that during the recent election. So, too, did the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which estimates that the reductions will cost £1 million for every town centre that is regenerated. In view of the state of town centres such as that in Dumfries—which he will know well, as I do—will the minister commit to additional funding for regeneration specifically to help such towns?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sure that Mr Brownlee would not expect me to commit to immediate funding for Dumfries, much as I would like to. However, he made a valid point. Dumfries is an interesting example of a town where a mix of actions will be required. I believe that the reduction and elimination of business rates will have an enormous effect in Dumfries because, as Mr Brownlee will know, one of the major problems is the difficulty for start-up businesses to base themselves in town centres.

There are other problems. There is work to be done on historic buildings in Dumfries town centre—I understand it is likely to be under way shortly—and there is the question of behaviour in all town centres. The Government intends to focus strongly on promoting positive social behaviour among young people and others, and to crack down on the antisocial minority. Those two aspects must be taken together. We want to promote good behaviour as well as to punish bad behaviour. Provided that we do that in the context of a variety of initiatives, all town centres—whether in Dunoon, Wick or Dumfries—will flourish.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I, along with the former Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform, met Scottish Borders Council to discuss its small towns review. That review is supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and is looking at whole-town plans as well as, if not dedicated funding—which I appreciate the minister will not be able to announce—other potential funding routes through COSLA, which may address some of the issues that other members have raised. Can officials brief the minister on the matter and can he come back to Parliament if there has been any progress? It is a cross-party issue and the work of COSLA and Scottish Executive officials across all departments on planning, economic development, regeneration and the environment is crucial.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am happy to arrange for that to happen so that we are working cross-party and in the spirit of consensus to improve our towns throughout Scotland. Mr Purvis and I were in Hawick on Friday morning. We saw some of the difficulties that that town faces and some of the exciting things, particularly the new Tower Mill development, which is immensely impressive. The use of such buildings, in the way that Tower Mill is now being used, can only be a good thing for any small town.