There’s been many reports claiming the ‘death of the high street’ during this crippling recession, but new plans could bring the birth of a fresh dawn for Falkirk’s struggling town centres.
The tsunami-like after effects of the credit crunch – coupled with a 10-fold increase in online shopping – has brought its pain to retailers both big and small.
But a raft of reinvigoration recommendations will help push back the currents and change the face of our town centres forever.
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The National Review of Town Centres by an independent advisory group publishes an optimistic approach to revitalising high streets with a vision of “live, work and play in town centres enlivened by a new sense of community and enterprise”.
The 16-page document features ideas to:
Encourage town centre living using lower rate incentives for landlords to turn unused properties into affordable housing, with help from a more lax planning policy.
Increase footfall by offering free Wi-fi in town centres advertising shops and offers on a new app (one is already up and running in Falkirk) to create ‘digital towns’.
‘Community empowerment’ by offering the ‘abundance’ of empty and abandoned properties for use to community organisations and ensuring that local government does not relocate services out of town centres to benefit the local economy.
Peter Reid, Falkirk Council’s strategic projects manager, is leading the local authority’s team aiming to turn the district’s fortunes around.
He said: “Bringing people to live in town centres again is a start and from that you can start to grow the economy. There’s a planning application live at the moment for the old Co-op building in Falkirk High Street to be changed to residential use and that’s being supported by the council.
“What is being said is that there’s a housing shortage in this country, we’ve got our high streets that are dying, but there’s all this accommodation above ground floor that is unused at the moment.
“The challenge is, if you’re sitting at your computer ordering goods online, you’re missing a whole social interaction, but Falkirk Council isn’t going to change that. That is a national phenomenon.
“Town centres as we have known them up until 2008 will never be the same again.
“The high street has to re-invent itself. Planning policies are going to have to be reviewed again, but, as this report makes strong recommendations for that, it will be up to the Scottish Government to come up with the policy changes to allow us to implement them.”
Mr Reid also said rates was a big issue. While businesses in the likes of Denny, Grangemouth and Bo’ness are paying nothing because their rateable value is less than £10,000, others in Falkirk are shelling out over the odds.
He said: “The rates being paid in the High Street were set in 2007-08 just before the market collapsed so they don’t reflect the current situation.
“The council can’t reduce business rates. The council only collects the rates for the Scottish Government and it goes straight to central government.
‘‘What we can do is support the initiatives laid out in this paper, possibly with some tax breaks, and that’s the kind of incentive retailers are going to have to look for support on.”