Council leader admits retail must 'shrink' in Falkirk town centre if it is to survive long term

The leader of Falkirk Council says moves are already in place which will change the town’s high street for the better.

Responding to calls from independent national “think tank” Social Market Foundation (SMF) to convert empty High Street shopping units into new homes to offset the “inevitable” decline of the town centre, Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn said the local authority was already two years down the line of trying to do just that.

She added: “The vision and the aspiration set out in the Executive report of August 3, 2018 still holds true and we are still committed to it. There is a clear recognition people’s shopping habits have changed, perhaps more so as a result of the impacts of the recent pandemic.

“There is little demand for large retail space and, as a result, we have to look to re-purpose our town centre. There is a need to shrink the current retail space and offer a range of different types of activities that will revitalise our town centre.

Falkirk Council Leader Cecil Meiklejohn says the local authority has been looking to bring housing and residential properties to the town centre

“This will include looking at increasing the number of people living within our town centre, as well as a civic and town hall facility which will act as a catalyst in creating a town centre that can offer a diverse range of activities to attract local people and visitors.”

Earlier this month Karim Virani, director of Callender Square owners Cygnet Properties and Leisure, said he was concerned about the fate of the town centre.

He said: “We are struggling because the town centre does not have the footfall to sustain the present scale of retail space. Falkirk Council has been talking about an intervention, placing some kind of new HQ and arts complex in the town centre for years, and we feel that now is the time for urgent action.

“The High Street needs investment and the people involved need a confidence boost.”

Falkirk town centre needs to change and "shrink" its retail space to have a chance at long term survival

Councillor Meiklejohn admitted the COVID-19 pandemic had been a blow to plans to bring the much talked about new headquarters and arts facility to the town centre.

She said: “There is the need to take stock at this time and look at the impacts of COVID 19 and we are currently in the process of doing that in relation to the HQ and Arts Centre proposals, but we clearly recognise the urgent need for investment in the town in order to sustain and stimulate our local economy.”

According to a new report from SMF the decline of traditional high street shopping in Falkirk and throughout the UK is inevitable, meaning people should focus less on slowing that decline and instead concentrate on supporting new and more beneficial uses for town-centre sites.

A major programme of converting retail units for residential use could allow the creation of 800,000 new homes, the SMF report, entitled A New Life for the High Street, states.

The report also says many of those homes should be built by local councils and other public bodies in a major expansion of social housing.

An SMF spokesperson said: “Trying to prop up high street retailers facing long-term decline is not an act of kindness to workers or towns. It just postpones the inevitable and wastes opportunities to develop new policies to help workers and towns embrace the future.

“Nothing can stop the demise of traditional high street shopping so it would be better for politicians to support the next chapter in the story of the high street, with hundreds of thousands of new homes that bring new life to our urban centres.”

Falkirk Council unveiled its own vision for the town centre back in 2018.

It stated: “The town centre and the headquarters project development should be taken forward as a partnership venture, combining investment from a range of partners and invigorating the town centre with a new sense of purpose.

“The way people shop has changed significantly and there is not the same demand for retail space in the centre as in previous years. The approach proposed is to take action that is about more than regeneration, it should revitalise the town centre, aiming to create a vibrant, healthy and sustainable town centre with benefits for the whole community.

“It should accommodate civic and arts facilities, operating as a flexible, multi-functional facility for arts and cultural events, conferencing, office accommodation,

democratic services and support functions.

“The headquarters facilities should be open from morning to night, all year round, with a diverse range of activities on offer to attract local people and visitors to the town centre – recognising Falkirk has among the highest growth rates for tourists in Scotland.

"The headquarters facility should have a central location and be complemented by a civic square for outdoor events and performances. Access to nearby cafes, restaurants would be encouraged to help boost the day and evening economy.

“Falkirk has a need to increase its hotel accommodation and the attraction of a hotel facility – and student accommodation – in the town centre would be encouraged.

“Work to revitalise the town centre should encourage the role of independent retailers, community and voluntary groups. Where possible the work should promote the conversion of existing buildings for other uses including the attraction of enterprise, cultural, health or care activities as well as new town centre housing.

“An integrated transport hub, focused around Grahamston Station should be encouraged. Free parking with charging points should be available for electric vehicles to encourage town centre living.

“The project should align fully with the objectives of the Investment Zone project being pursued with Scottish and UK Governments. The council has a key role to galvanise the work of partners, including town centre landowners and other stakeholders to revitalise the town centre, creating a vibrant place to live, work and visit.”

There are already moves afoot to bring new residential premises to the town centre.

Back in May a property investment and development business stated it was committed to a project which aims to help regenerate Falkirk High Street.REWD – Real Estate Wealth Development – Group, run by two men who live in the Grangemouth and Reddingmuirhead areas, is currently seeking planning permission to convert the vacant space of the upper floors of town centre businesses into flats.According to REWD, the UK housing market has reached a critical level of under supply, with a shortage of homes compared to current demand.At the same time many high streets are sadly becoming “ghost towns”, with large retailers going out of business or downsizing their number of stores.Many of these empty properties create a great opportunity to aid the residential housing under supply.A REWD Group spokesman said: “We created the REWD Group 18 months ago and have a good track record in residential buying and letting. Now we are looking to move into bigger projects and would like to try and develop properties in Falkirk and Grangemouth town centres.“Our focus is now on developing empty commercial premises and turning them into residential properties. Although our acquisitions extend all over Scotland, our focus is on Falkirk and Grangemouth areas, as we’re both local guys.”Having already been given the green light to convert the former Indian restaurant in La Porte Precinct, Grangemouth into flats, REWD Group is currently awaiting planning permission to convert the entire floor above Poundstretchers at 150 to 156 High Street in Falkirk – a massive property which covers 2500 square metres and stretches right back to Manor Street.“That property was used for accommodation years ago and we are looking to turn the upper floors into 16 flats. We want to keep the retail on the ground floor and convert the entire upper floors for residential accommodation.“We are looking to add an extra level on the roof as well, complete with rooftop gardens, balconies and other features. The way we look at it is, how are you going to get people back into the High Street? Well we do it by actually having people live in the town centre.”