Plans to create a new Falkirk Council headquarters and arts centre will start to take shape as councillors finally agreed to go to the next stage – asking developers to come up with firm ideas, locations and all-important costs.
Director of development Rhona Geisler said councillors are not being asked to say yes to the ambitious plans just yet – but this will allow them to come up with firm proposals with some of the details that all councillors are anxious to see.
She said: “We need to have all the relevant information before we make the decision because it is a huge decision and there would be significant risks.
“We must know what we’re getting into. All I’m asking to do is to take it to the next stage.”
Taking advice from consultants, the council will now look at two proposals; both include an arts centre that will seat 550 people, but one will have space for 500 council staff, the other 320.
There were fears that Labour would block the project from going further after they announced they would not back a plan that saw so much money being spent in Falkirk while other areas of the district struggled.
But a passionate plea from the Howgate’s Margaret Foy, who spoke on behalf of the 65 members of the Healthy High Street group, asked them to consider that people from all across the district work in Falkirk town centre stores and its failure would be felt throughout the area in hundreds of families.
“It’s now or never for all these jobs,” was her message to councillors.
She told them that in the last few years the Howgate alone has lost 200 jobs – more than a third of its workforce – while its visitor numbers had dropped from eight million to 4.5 million a year and spending had also halved.
“How many jobs must be lost before we realise how seriously this affects the local economy and our community?” she asked them.
Doing nothing is not an option, she told council members – because whatever happens, Falkirk Council desperately needs new offices.
A 2011 report showed that a refurbishment of its current 1960’s buildings would cost £20 million.
That would be, said Ms Foy, “a hugely expensive sticking plaster on a building that is not fit for purpose”.
“Put your politics aside and help us to drive this positive change,” she begged, saying that other businesses were watching what the council was doing, waiting to follow its lead and invest in the town centre.
Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn also argued that it was time for decisions.
“We must move forward, we can’t afford to do nothing,” she said.
“Time is of the essence. We have a failing town centre and if it’s not already in crisis, it’s not far away.
“It’s time Falkirk Council made the commitment to invest in the town centre and give retail sector confidence and support.
“If we don’t deliver for our constituents they will vote with their feet and they will never forgive Falkirk Council.”
“Do the right thing. Let’s get out to the market, with no more delays.
“Let’s get these proposals into something tangible for the people of Falkirk. We can’t afford not to do this.”
After a debate lasting three and a half hours, it was clear that while there was agreement to press on, some members remain sceptical that the project really has the power to transform our ailing town centre.
Conservative group leader Lynn Munro said that the decision to open the retail park meant that the town centre had effectively moved, while online shopping has gone up by 600 per cent “in a short time”.
She and her group are unconvinced an arts centre will reverse the decline and a Conservative amendment suggested instead moving staff into vacant town centre units and opening up the east end of the High Street as far as Cow Wynd.
She said: “I think the real challenge is the issue of the ‘doughnut’ – you can’t get into the town centre. Visitors can’t even find the town centre. I know my own relatives have tried and been frustrated and gone elsewhere!
“A few years ago a much more modest proposal was rejected – it was called a ‘vanity project’.
“Now, we’re being asked for a much bigger project with a huge arts centre that is growing by the day.
“The original figure for the arts centre was £15 million but these proposals take it up to £40 million.”
She argued strongly that “one big project” would not transform the town’s fortunes and that all retailers and the wider community had to come together to make the change happen.
Labour, however, agreed to support the SNP’s motion to go ahead although they held back from giving it full backing, saying they would look at the ideas from developers and make a decision when they had the full facts.
Councillor Joan Coombes said: “This is being framed as a simple choice between saving our town centre and not saving it – in reality, it’s far more complex.
“I wonder how the increase in footfall is going to save the town centre when all town centres are reducing?”
A further Labour group amendment also asked the council to look at other more immediate ways to support the town centre, with Labour group leader Robert Bissett assuring the Tories that would include their proposals.
Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn agreed to their request – meaning the procurement process can begin.
There will be a report back to a meeting of the executive in December to “confirm the specifications and approach” to the process.