A NEW expert group to help Scotland's town centres emerge from the challenge posed by Covid-19 has been announced by the Scottish Government.

Leading figures from town planning, public health, transport and business are all involved in the new body, which will be chaired by Leigh Sparks, a professor of retail studies at Stirling University.

The move was announced as small business chiefs said the "need to back local business has never been greater".

Andrew McRae, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland (FSB), said the new body provides "a timely opportunity to put the health and wellbeing of our towns and town centres under the microscope".

He added: "While Covid recovery is the starting point and immediate priority, the review must set out a long-term plan to secure a bright future for Scotland's 479 towns - and the tens of thousands of small businesses that operate there.

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"As members of the review, FSB will be arguing for bold pro-business measures to breathe new life into many of our struggling towns.

"Facing the perfect storm of economic turbulence, rapidly increasing online sales and empty units from big business closures, the need to back local business has never been greater."

Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell stressed the new group - which will include the FSB as well as local government leaders at Cosla and the Royal Town Planning Institute - will listen to local voices.

She said: "Town centres are crucial to our economic recovery and renewal as we emerge from lockdown and it's important we do all we can to support them.

"Covid-19 has changed the way we all live, work and shop, and we must develop safe spaces that meet the diverse economic, social and environmental needs of city, country, village and island populations.

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"By nurturing connections between local producers and retailers and their communities, we enhance the wellbeing of our communities.

"Our town centre-first approach has been held up as an example throughout the UK and globally. Now we have the opportunity to develop healthier, vibrant and greener town centres that support communities to thrive."

Professor Sparks said the Scottish Government's review of town centres in 2013 and the later Town Centre Action Plan had "provided a pathway for towns in recent years".

He added: "Covid-19 provides a challenge to our towns and town centres, but also an opportunity to rethink and re-energise our efforts to make towns fit for all in Scotland.

"I am delighted therefore to have been asked to lead this new group at this critical and important time."