Falkirk town centre: HQ decision ‘devastates’ traders - council ’run by dinosaurs’

Angry Falkirk businesses have warned local jobs will be hit by a refusal to back plans for a new HQ and arts centre on the High Street, and admitted they were ‘devastated’ by the decision.

One furious town centre trader, who did not want to be named, said: “They say they are a council of the future but it is being run by dinosaurs.”

While the Municipal Buildings now lie almost empty as offices have been cleared, the politicians still can’t agree on what should happen next.

After four years of debate, reports and studies – at a cost of around £500,000 – the council is no further forward, as opposition councillors refused to the back the SNP plans.

Falkirk Council Headquarters and Arts Centre Project. Option B

Instead, Labour and Conservative groups say the council should build new offices on the current site and refurbish the town hall.

Margaret Foy, speaking on behalf of the Healthy High Street group called the decision “irresponsible” – and said they were very concerned that a sizeable number of local jobs would be directly impacted.

She said: “A gilt-edged opportunity has been lost – one that could have helped to propel the Falkirk area towards a more sustainable and prosperous future.

“If the new town centre HQ and Arts Centre proposal had been approved, Falkirk folk could have had a new modern, efficient and affordable building that came with almost £10 million pounds of guaranteed external capital funding.

Margaret Fo

“This fully budgeted and capitalised project would have revitalised the High Street and created jobs.

“Instead, the Labour and Conservative councillors have voted against the recommendations of their own experts and now wish to build their own ‘LabourCon’ ivory tower HQ on the existing site, and to spend even more local tax revenue on Falkirk’s costly and inefficient town hall.

“The individuals who voted for this decision very evidently have either not read or failed to understand the clear and very detailed recommendations put to them.

“It was obvious to anyone who watched the proceedings on September 29 that these councillors clearly expect others to pick up the tab for their incompetence.”

Falkirk Council Headquarters and Arts Centre Project

Town Centre manager Elaine Grant said that all of the businesses she had spoken to were “devastated” by yet another delay

She said: “We had hopes and plans and dreams for the town centre that have been completely destroyed.

“The town centre needs investments and it needs bold decisions. I’m bitterly disappointed that we don’t have that level of investment now.

“Businesses are asking me why they are going against recommendations that have been years in the planning – they want to know whey they’ve gone against all the evidence that was presented.”

The council leader, Cecil Meiklejohn, said the SNP’s vision was cost-effective and would have boosted the town centre, helping regeneration and recovery.

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She said: “Labour, with the Tories, voted it down in favour of half-baked, substandard proposals which had already been examined extensively over several years and found to be severely lacking or inappropriate.”

A spokesperson for the Conservative group said: “The core of the Conservative position is that absolutely, the town centre needs funding and regeneration, and bringing cultural attractors to the area will be a key part of increasing overall footfall.

“However, that doesn’t mean the Council should forget its duties to maximise value for the taxpayer, and avoid excess spending.

“It also doesn’t mean that the first proposal sent forward should be immediately accepted: the importance of the task at hand doesn’t mean rushing it.”

There were several key issues that made agreement impossible.

Parking

The Administration: A survey of parking showed that parking for the new centre could be easily accommodated in existing car parks, including the Howgate Centre and Callendar Square. They also hope that many people visiting the theatre would get the train or bus. The number of disabled parking spaces would have been decided at the planning stages.

The Opposition: Conservative councillor Lynn Munro said: “There is a new goal for this complex which seeks to minimise the use of the car. Yet the strategy to make the arts facility financially viable relies on a catchment area of l.2 million people across the central belt who would use the theatre… are we proposing they all walk?”

The site

The Administration: Selling the land would bring in cash that could be used on the new centre. Selling it for housing would bring more people to the area. Demolishing the 1960s buildings on the High Street/Cockburn Street would regenerate the area and businesses currently using that area would move, helping to fill up the rest of any vacant units in the town centre. Having a combined HQ and arts centre will boost both day and night-time economies.

The Opposition: The property on Cockburn St. will need to be compulsory purchased at significant cost to the Council, a process which may take some years to complete. The original plan for the HQ would have seen hundreds of people working from it – but the move to working from home has changed that, significantly changing any economic impact it would have.

The town hall

The Administration: Previous reports state that there are significant structural issues that mean it would cost around £8 million to refurbish the town hall. Reports commissioned from arts specialists say that a more modern theatre with better facilities would allow much better acts to come which would allow it to almost double the income that the venue generates.

The Opposition: Falkirk Town Hall, which can seat 530 people, “would not need significant improvements to be a fully functioning centre of the arts”. The current town hall requires a significant subsidy to keep it afloat. They believe that it could be retrofitted to become carbon neutral.

The cost:

The Administration: The cost to the council was capped at £45 million from the capital budget. But the project was expected to attract around £10 million of external funding as it would bring regeneration and reduce the council’s carbon footprint. Previous reports suggest that building a separate office on the current site would cost around £25 million, while building a new advice hub and library on Falkirk High Street would cost around £4-5 million.

The Opposition: Conservative councillors believe that the Cockburn Street site’s purchase prices were significantly under-valued, and say they could not get anything other than “fuzzy answers” when questioning the cost. Opposition councillors also believe that the money is unfairly concentrated on Falkirk town centre and should be more evenly distributed around the district.

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