The changing face of Falkirk’s town centre – and hopes for the future

Picture: Michael Gillen
Picture: Michael Gillen

Hurling brickbats whenever the fortunes of Falkirk town centre are discussed has almost become a hobby for some people, keen to knock whenever a shop closes down and leaves another empty unit.

But sadly what is happening on our High Street is no different from any other town the length and breadth of the country.

When a major retailer drastically cuts back its business or goes bust, the repercussions are felt in many towns and cities, not just Falkirk, as the shutters are brought down and people lose their jobs.

However, those involved in safeguarding Falkirk’s economic future believe that it is how we deal with the aftershocks of such events that is more important rather than debating why they happened.

How we live our lives is completely different from our predecessors. Whereas our granny would go to the corner shop and the butcher to buy fresh produce daily, we are more inclined to head to the supermarket once a week, even monthly or shop online and have someone else deliver it.

Can you complain about the “dire” state of the high street if you never shop in it?

While families used to live ‘above the shop’, the majority of town centre buildings now house stockrooms or are an empty space.

If people were to live back in the hearts of our towns would they be more inclined to spend their cash on their doorstep and would it help restore a pride in the place they live?

One of those who believes it would is Falkirk’s First Citizen, Provost Tom Coleman. As well as his civic role, he is also the SNP administration’s spokesperson on economic development.

He said: “My ambition is to try to persuade the big property companies who own many of the buildings on our High Street to turn these upper floors back into flatted accommodation. That is definitely a route we want to go down and will be pursuing.”

However, in recent weeks there has been further changes in Falkirk’s town centre – and ambitious plans revealed which would give it a further boost.

Entrepreneur Douglas Hannigan has found four new clients for his properties, all independent companies, which he believes is a key to the area’s future success.

GeekGear has opened up a shop on the High Street in the former Brothers outlet supplying superhero merchandise and hand-crafted goods. Only set up in 2015 from a unit in Grangemouth Business Centre, it has grown so quickly owner Leslie Lenaghen now wants to make his mark on the town centre.

From a new business to a long-established firm, Oliphants the bakers will be moving into premises at Callendar Riggs. Set up in 1856, the company now bakes its products from a factory at Bankside Industrial Estate but plans on having the new store in the heart of the town to sell goods.

Also moving into Callendar Riggs is Donald Watt Financial Advisor, while charity Go Youth Trust has taken over premises in Glebe Street.

Mr Hannigan said: “This is positive news and shows small businesses are keen to come to Falkirk town centre.”

He also revealed that his company has applied for a change of use to make an 8000sq ft gym plus a small apartment hotel adjacent to the bus station.

Further examples of change are the closure of long-established Robertson Rainwear in Vicar Street, while Rock A Punk along with Noise Noise Noise has opened nearby.

Alex Fleming, Falkirk BID manager whose role is to promote and enhance the town centre, said: “Town centres across the country are currently evolving and Falkirk is no different.

“Falkirk’s strength has always been the fact that it is not a homogenised town centre. We still enjoy big name anchor stores like Boots, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams and we also have a wonderful array of quality boutiques, artisan producers and speciality shops.

“Some of these are new to the town and it’s great to welcome them and many are long established, award-winning businesses with a reputation for bringing their best to the town centre.”

She believes that Falkirk is at the start of a journey and said the £5.5 million investment through the current Townscape Heritage Initiative to improve the appearance of the heart of the town, and the growth in tourism has been a catalyst.

Alex added: “Falkirk Delivers and its partners are driving opportunities for future investment in the town centre which includes the development of a ‘Locate in Falkirk’ document to attract national retailer and investor interest.”

Suzanne Arkinson, the manager of the Howgate shopping centre, believes the way forward for the town centre is for a mix of provision for the people who use it, whether they be locals or visitors.

She said the strategy for Ellandi, the owners of the Howgate, is “to invest In community shopping centres which deliver for the everyday needs of the communities they serve. Our aim is to put town centres back at the heart of their communities”.

Suzanne added: “We believe that it is essential for town centres to provide a proper mixed use amenity for our customers. Vibrant town centres require complementary uses such as sports and leisure, heritage and culture, restaurants, hotels and public buildings as well as areas for residential, educational and tourism uses.”