Dunbar Town Centre -What if?

Dunbar’s town centre is pretty special. There are few towns in Scotland of a similar size with such a range of independent shops, eating places and other local businesses – and with museums, community centre, harbour and much more so close together.

Even before COVID, town centres across the UK have been affected by the rise of ever bigger supermarkets and online shopping, and Dunbar has not been immune.

And now businesses, museums, community projects and others have all been affected by COVID. Some have really struggled, and continue to do so, while others have been able to change they way they operate and carry on. COVID has certainly meant many people have rediscovered local businesses. Will this continue in the future, or is it just a blip?

We have no way of knowing what’s coming next. But we don’t have to wait and see what happens. Instead we can think big, and imagine the town centre we need now and in the coming decades. And work together to make that vision a reality.

In this article we offer some initial thoughts about the challenges and opportunities. These are based on a response to a Scottish Government consultation about the future of town centres, submitted on behalf of Sustaining Dunbar, Dunbar Trades Association and Dunbar Community Council. Due to the short timescale, these ideas where pulled together quickly, without the opportunity for wider consultation – but hopefully they are a useful starting point for discussion.

Some of the challenges facing Dunbar town centre

Dunbar is at risk of becoming a dormitory town to Edinburgh

Significant levels of house building on greenfield sites around the town, has seen the local population grow considerably. Further house building is proposed. 30% of those in employment commute over 30km, mainly to Edinburgh. With no strategy to increase local jobs, the level of outward commuting is likely to increase.

While the increase in population has increased footfall and revenue for some town centre businesses, there is concern that for some residents Edinburgh is often the default option for shopping and leisure. There is considerable opportunity to increase the level of engagement of the local population, especially new residents with businesses, services and community activities in Dunbar. However there is no plan to integrate new residents into the life of the town.

Edge of town retail and service developments may shift the centre of gravity away from the town centre

New hospitality and service developments, adjacent to the existing supermarket and garden centre, may reduce shopping and leisure trips to Edinburgh, but it is unclear what effect the developments will have on the town centre.

The impact will depend very much on whether the new shops and services are complementary to those in the town centre, or if they compete directly. Even where there isn’t direct competition, the resulting travel patterns may shift the centre of gravity from the town centre.

Poor visual appearance and empty properties

Dunbar benefits from most commercial premises having occupied domestic flats above, so there are many residents who live in the town centre. However, most of the flats are rental properties and many are in poor condition. Landlords have little incentive to maintain the often historic properties to a high standard, affecting the appearance of the High Street.

There are a number of unoccupied sites, including listed properties, on and around the High Street that are uneconomic to improve or develop, often as a result of the high costs of works to historic and traditionally built properties.

There are also some retail / commercial units that have been unoccupied for several years. Given the demand for retail premises if these problem properties were improved and/or put on the market, they would improve the visual appearance of the area and provide retail, commercial and/or domestic properties, bringing more life to the area.

Services for young people and people suffering disadvantage are overstreched

The growth in population, primarily as a result of new housing, has increased faster than many services, leading to a shortage of provision. These include activities and services for young people, including leisure, post-school education and training.

Despite being a relatively prosperous area on average, there are significant numbers of people of all ages suffering economic and social disadvantage. As the economic impact of COVID-19 plays out, we can anticipate increased levels of disadvantage, including addiction and mental ill health. Many of the support services, run by local community groups and social services, are already stretched and anticipate demand to increase further.

Negative impacts of these challenges

These challenges mean that:

  • benefits to local businesses from growth in population could be significantly greater
  • poor visual appearance detracts from shopping experience
  • carbon emissions, pollution and congestion worsen due to growing levels of car commuting
  • potential redevelopment of brownfield sites and difficult buildings is missed due to costs
  • lack of engagement and integration of new residents is a missed opportunity for both old and new residents
  • young people, and people of all ages facing disadvantage, are not getting the services and support they need

There are however a number of opportunities

Ensure a living town centre for everyone

Reports into the future of town centres in recent years have argued that, to adapt, town centres must provide a wide range of services and experiences, beyond traditional retail and hospitality. This must include a range of housing types in the centre.

We believe that it is essential that this vision of the town centre embraces the needs and aspirations of everyone living locally and further afield – including young people and those suffering disadvantage. This means ensuring that the town centre continues to offer a range of independent shops, cafes, restaurants etc, and other includes activities and services that meet the needs of the entire community.

There is a opportunity for private businesses, social enterprises, community groups and statutory bodies to work together to further enhance the town centre, taking account of, and working with key organisations / locations in and on the edge of the town centre: High Street, harbour, leisure centre, community centre/library, museums, railway station, gardens and seafront.

Build on the return to local retail and other services that has been promoted by the pandemic

Many people have turned to local retailers and other service providers during the pandemic. There is a significant opportunity for those businesses that have been able to meet this need, to continue, and for others to benefit from this trend.

To benefit from this potential many local businesses are likely to need to evolve their business model, to include or improve their ability to provide services like click & collect and home delivery.

Hyper-local promotion of businesses, individually and/or collectively, will also be important.

Tourism and Staycations could bring more visitors to the town

While the outlook for tourism is uncertain, it is likely that demand from ‘staycationers’ and other domestic tourism will be important for Dunbar. The town has much to offer visitors making Dunbar their base for visiting East Lothian and Edinburgh, and as a day trip destination from across the local area and Edinburgh.

While many of the issues relating to wider tourism are outside the scope of a town centre action plan, we believe a key factor is to ensure the town centre develops as a ‘living town centre’. A living, and lived in, town centre, with a varied mix of independent retail and hospitality businesses, museums and attractions, serving residents and visitors alike, offers an authentic experience rather than a shallow heritage experience aimed primarily at tourists.

Dunbar is well placed to develop in this way, and the visitor experience should be an integral aspect of developing a living town centre.

Encourage continued remote working and engage remote workers in the life of the town

The pandemic has demonstrated that many people can work from home, and that can bring benefits for some people and their families. There is a significant opportunity to build on this, with continued remote working, both at home and in coworking spaces, by those who would otherwise commute out of town. This would increase local spend and engagement with community groups etc.

Opportunities for remote workers to network and engage with others locally will be help make remote working attractive and build stronger local connections.

Positive impacts of these opportunities

These impacts could have the following benefits:

  • increased footfall and spend in local businesses
  • reduced carbon emissions, pollution and congestion from car commuting
  • a living town centre meeting the needs of all
  • greater involvement by more people in local cultural and creative groups and events
  • potential to developing coworking spaces
  • improved quality of town centre housing
  • empty or under-utilised properties brought back into use
  • opportunities for ELC to support local business- and community-led town centre improvements
  • increased engagement and integration of old and new residents
  • increased wellbeing and inclusion from enhanced provision of services

There are some barriers to enhancing the town centre

Travel / parking / deliveries

Many studies have shown that in many circumstances, prioritising walking and cycling has a significant, positive impact on town centre retailers and services. However in a town in a rural area with more or less non-existent local bus services it is not easy to see how to attract more people to the town centre without increasing congestion and parking. These uncertainties make this a contentious topic.

With the pandemic we have seen increased levels of walking and cycling, including e-bikes, mainly for leisure. This could potentially be built on to increase levels of active travel to the town centre for shopping, eating out, attend community events, etc.

While there is considerable scope to increase levels of walking and cycling from across Dunbar to the town centre, the town is bisected by the East Coast Mainline railway. There are few safe, convenient and pleasant routes for walking and cycling into the town centre from many of the new developments.

Resolving these problems to develop a more vibrant town centre, while increasing active travel and decreasing car usage, without disadvantaging those living outside the town, and those with mobility issues, will not be easy.

Despite these difficulties, the disruption caused by the pandemic and the resulting renewed focus on the local, provides an opportunity to make progress with a range of mutually supportive initiatives:

  • Identify, improve and promote safe, convenient and pleasant walking and cycling routes to the town centre from all residential areas of town and local villages.
  • Consistent ‘love local’ campaign, to include local shopping, local services and local community groups and events.
  • Support local businesses develop click & collect and home delivery services. There may be opportunities to collaborate to consolidate deliveries from multiple shops to customers across the area. For deliveries in the town itself this could include use of e-cargo bikes. Such schemes may require support including IT services and infrastructure, as well and marketing and promotion.

Cost of maintaining town centre properties

As noted above, poor property maintenance, and buildings standing empty, is a significant barrier to improving the town centre. Many of these buildings are listed and most are in a conservation area.

The costs of maintenance, and development to bring them back into use, is a significance barrier. Opportunities to address this include: favouring brownfield over greenfield sites in local plans and planning decisions; zero-rating materials and services for the repair, maintenance and development of listed buildings and existing properties in conservation areas.

Osbert Lancaster: