In February 2010, Glenrothes Area Committee approved a process which would lead towards the development of a town centre action plan. Fife Council created an internal cross service project team and appointed Yellow Book, WMUD and Nick Wright Planning to prepare an action plan for Glenrothes town centre. The brief called for three outputs:
- an analysis of the performance and prospects for the town centre
- an aspirational, long-term vision for the town centre, and
- proposals for short-term action
Glenrothes was constructed in 1948 under the New Towns (Scotland) Act. It grew and developed through a strong tradition of community and public sector partnership and is now home to approximately 40,000 people. In 2009, Glenrothes town centre “won” Prospect magazine’s Carbuncle award for the most dismal place in Scotland. Like most of our consultees we think the award was unhelpful and unjustified. The continuing, though declining, commercial vitality of Glenrothes and the high standard of management in the Kingdom Centre is in marked contrast to the depressed state of some failing town centres in Scotland. The town’s large working population, the attractive planting and floral displays, and the year-round popularity of the Rothes Halls for entertainment, community events and business meetings are all positive assets.
In reality, Glenrothes is a sizeable town without a true town centre. There is only limited out of hours activity and nothing that could reasonably be described as an evening economy. The outdoor spaces are grim and cheerless and leisure facilities such as bowling and night clubs have failed. The lack of useable, quality public space means there is no natural venue for outdoor events, farmers’ markets or community celebrations. Glenrothes is a successful place with a strong community spirit, but it is badly let down by its town centre. Many higher income residents of the town and the wider catchment area choose other centres – in Fife and beyond – to shop, and for leisure, entertainment and culture. The town centre’s most loyal customers are from lower income groups, and this is reflected in the retail offer.
The causes of the town centre’s decline are complex and deep-seated. Some are unique to the history and development of Glenrothes, while others reflect the legacy of the New Towns. Above all, the fortunes of the town centre have been shaped by powerful socio-economic forces – choice, competition and mobility – which have given rise to new forms of retail and leisure, and a new geography of consumption. No places are exempt from the pressures arising from these trends and there is no point in wishing for a return to the past.
Four focus groups were held in June and August 2010. The focus groups revealed almost unanimous dissatisfaction with the condition of Glenrothes town centre. As far as many people are concerned, Glenrothes “doesn’t have a town centre”:
- the quality of the retail offer in the Kingdom Centre has been affected by the recession
- out of shopping hours the town centre is almost deserted and there is a very limited and fragmented evening economy
- the Rothes Halls complex is a valuable facility, but it could contribute more to the vitality of the town centre
- in spite of clear efforts to maintain them to a high standard, parts of the town centre are now regarded as ugly and unwelcoming
- it is a car-dominated environment. Although pedestrian connections to surrounding neighbourhoods have been improved, these links could be stronger.
We concluded that Glenrothes is a popular, attractive and successful community that is let down in some critical aspects by its town centre. In an age of mobility and choice, only a small proportion of local people (and lower than expected from the rest of Fife) choose Glenrothes town centre. Further that the town centre is a child of its time and the problems it faces are typical of shopping centres in other former New Towns. At the same time, Glenrothes is arguably the best kept New Town in Scotland and has many positive attributes.
Issues and options
There are two main groups of issues facing the town centre – its environment and its history.
There is a generally held perception of a bleak and unwelcoming environment and in particular:
- the architecture of the town centre is uninspiring – only St Columba’s church and the 1950s shopping precinct at the east end of the town make a positive contribution to the townscape
- a rich landscape setting, but little public realm in the town centre – although tidy and well maintained, none of it is high quality with significant areas of surface parking and service yards
- being able to find one’s way around and read the layout of the town is particularly difficult and the bulk of the Kingdom Centre discourages north-south pedestrian movement and is an absolute barrier when the shops are closed
- development of the town centre lagged behind the construction of new houses: so from the beginning this established the residents’ shopping patterns of going elsewhere and it has never quite recovered
- the Kingdom Centre is an enclosed indoor mall – fashions change and in the past 10 years in particular there has been a strong push to return to traditional streets woven into the urban fabric
- small and medium-sized town centres have been severely squeezed by profound changes in the way we shop and spend our leisure time: driven by unprecedented levels of consumer choice and personal mobility
Glenrothes town centre is therefore a product of its time and needs to adopt the approach of Harlow, Bracknell and others who are trying to re-invent themselves. We also cautioned that town centres may not be “the heart of the community” these days due to changing lifestyles, choice, competition, mobility and the “captive” market of low income customers.
Any long term plans for the future of the town centre should:
- embrace a wider area adjacent to the town centre
- make the wider town centre an attractive place to shop, work and spend leisure time
- create a new civic centre and business district
- re-investment to reposition the Kingdom Centre
- develop the non-retail and civic components and the centre and reduce the impact of cars
- improve access within the town centre and with the rest of the town
- potentially develop a new street grid of boulevards, walking and cycling networks
The problems facing Glenrothes town centre are deep-seated and systemic. The current budgetary constraints and fragility of the economy reinforce the reality that there are no easy answers and no quick fixes. Many people at the focus groups made the point that there is little point in promoting the centre when the product is poor, or in encouraging people to walk where the pedestrian environment is hostile. At the same time, there is the need to avoid impracticable grand plans. In current market conditions the prospects of a comprehensive re-development of the Kingdom Centre are remote. However, Fife Council, the local community and business interests have started a process of taking a fresh look at the town centre together and of looking at more than just physical answers to the town centre’s problems and this is a positive way forward.