Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries is a response to community-led consultation. It uncovered a consensus amongst local people, businesses, groups and agencies that a priority for a ‘future Dumfries’ is a more diverse town centre with people living in the town centre and a mix of new businesses/shops, as well as culture, leisure and services.
We commissioned a short animation to share some of the learning from the community. In publishing the video we also caught up with Scott Mackay, Manager of Midsteeple Quarter, to find out how the current pandemic had impacted their work, and lessons for other communities in moving to post-covid recovery.
How has the work you have been doing in Dumfries been impacted by COVID over the past few months?
Well the building that we normally work in—the Oven—has been closed so we have moved everything online. We got some local artists who have been involved in the project to take over our Instagram account to keep the momentum going. However, the closure of the physical space has been an issue and that has meant that some things that we wanted to do have been put on hold.
We were in the process of buying two other buildings, but this was delayed by COVID. We have the funding in place for the purchase, but given the poor physical shape of these buildings, are looking at how to fund the required repairs to make them usable.
We anticipate that although the priorities for government, funders, etc. is currently rightly focused on the COVID recovery period, we expect that as we move forward and businesses reopen (or don’t), the longer-term economic impact of COVID will start to become clear when we enter the economic recovery phase. This is when the vision for Midsteeple Quarter will become even more important to the regeneration and turnaround of the economic prospects of the High Street.
For the building we own—the Oven—we’ve got a proposal which we’ve spent a long time on community engagement to work up with a business plan and feasibility study. However, the planning decision for the redevelopment has been delayed by COVID and it has put our programme out a bit. But with some creativity, I am hopeful we’ll shortly get this back on track.
We have been able to move our board meetings and those things online, but what we haven’t been able to do is any kind of consultation with the community with meetings and using the space. That’s been a little bit of a problem.
One thing we had planned to do was launch a community bond issue to raise more money. We realised that with the economic impact of lockdown it probably wasn’t the right time to ask for more money. We have put that on hold for now.
Like everyone, given the economic effect of COVID, we’re a little bit worried about finance going forward, but I am being cautiously optimistic. I think that we’re in a very strong position because of what we are already doing. We’ve already got assets. We’ve bought buildings and we’ve got a plan for them. That is going to help the economic recovery of the High Street, which is going to be a big issue as we come out of this.
So, in a sense, I see us as being ahead of that curve, whereas other town centres will only be beginning to realise that as communities maybe we can do something.
What advice would you have for some other communities that are where you were four years ago?
The whole community engagement aspect is a big issue for us in Dumfries. It’s about building relationships with all stakeholders at every level. It’s about the decision makers, funders, local authority, people at the Scottish government, South of Scotland Enterprise and various other trusts and funds.
These relationships have opened doors for us. We’ve really had nobody saying no to us! And I think that’s because we put so much time into preparing the groundwork for and bringing the community with us, having a good vision and plan that we were going to achieve it.
Town centre uses
The other thing we have been looking at, partly because of COVID, is the uses of the town centre shop units. With retail generally contracting, a lot of towns have got more floor space than they need.
The planning policy of retail first has been beginning to change, but not quickly. I think there's a need to look at more innovative, new uses and compete with the whole Internet market.
We need to be looking at our high street being much more dynamic and having a lot of different types of uses, many of which we won't even have thought of yet.
We need to bring footfall, a reason for people to visit the high street. We’re looking at things like community banking because a lot of banks are closing their branches.
We're also looking at things like recycling, reusing and repairing tool libraries, that kind of thing. Some of the buildings in the High Street have workshops behind them.
That's quite exciting to get a different economy into the high street. Not just retail, makers could actually make and repair things. There could be artist studios behind a retail frontage which becomes a kind of shop window for the enterprise going on.
Going back to a more traditional high street, with more local distinctiveness. Locally owned with local character.
The other big issue is residential. Dumfries has one of the lowest numbers of people living in the town centre of any town of its size in Britain.
There are all these empty floors above the shops - can we do something with them? Can we convert them into flats to get people living in the centre again? That would help support the diversity of the economy in a sustainable way as they would use the services and restaurants on their doorstep without having to travel.
Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, but I'm very much of the view that we need to stay the course. We've got a plan and this plan fits with the economic recovery of the high street coming out of COVID, so we just need to stick to that plan and keep going.
There may be twists and turns on the journey, but it hasn't fundamentally changed our direction at all. It's just reinforced that we are doing what needs to be done.
Our work on town centre living
You can read about some of the projects we’ve been a part of to date, from town centres to housing. Work that has enabled us to inspire and support those involved in designing and shaping our places.