Falkirk steps up to the mark

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Bosses in Falkirk are one step ahead of most other towns and cities in the bid to revitalise the high street.

The message came as ambitious plans from a retail guru to halt the decline in the UK’s shopping heartlands were revealed.

TV expert Mary Portas came up with a blueprint to help rescue the country’s town centres after taking on a challenge from Prime Minister David Cameron to look at the problem.

Traditional high streets are in danger of dwindling out of existence in the face of competition from out-of-town shopping centres inhabited by major retailers and with free parking on the doorstep.

However, much of what is recommended in The Portas Review to tackle the issue has been adopted in Falkirk by officials and politicians, as well as the retailers themselves.

Alastair Mitchell, who has been running Falkirk’s town centre, as well as the district centres of Grangemouth, Stenhousemuir, Denny and Bo’ness, for over a decade, said, although far from complacent, he was encouraged to see they were thinking along the same lines as Ms Portas.

He said: “It is a really good document and I know the Association of Town Centre Management is fully supportive. We in Falkirk are already striving to achieve much of the content and that is very pleasing to note that it is now being recognised at a national level.

“I’ll be passing the document around members of the BID (Business Improvement District) management group for them to consider.”

The report has 28 recommendations, including:

nPut in place a ‘town team’ – Falkirk was the first in Scotland to have a town centre manager appointed in 1988.

nEmpower successful BIDs to take on more powers and become Super-BIDS – Falkirk was the first in Scotland to have a successful renewal ballot for a second term, allowing it to take forward more plans for improvements.

nEstablish a new ‘National Market Day’ – Farmers’ Markets and other themed markets regularly take place to attract more footfall to the town centre.

nTown Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe – Falkirk is involved in a £2 million project funded by the Scottish Government to regenerate the town centre and improve links with the historic Old Parish Church, Central Retail Park and town centre.

nAffordable town centre parking – District centres offer free parking, while Falkirk’s is one of the lowest in Scotland and, for a four-week period over Christmas charges in local authority-run car parks, have been dropped.

Although thousands of shops have closed in the last decade, the report warns more would go as shoppers switched to malls, supermarkets and the Internet for purchases.

But, with her plans for a turnaround, Ms Portas said: “We need to stop seeing our high streets as just shops. We now need to get people back into our high streets and that requires creating a place that is about enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, wellbeing and health.”

Reflecting that for the second year running Falkirk was named Scotland’s top town in retail rankings, Mr Mitchell added: “We are already doing as much as we can to ensure that our town centres are attractive and safe places for people to come to work, to shop and to spend their leisure time.

“I’m not saying that life is rosy, but we are always looking for new ideas to combat the difficult circumstances that our high streets and town centres are facing.”