Scottish council elections: Fury in Falkirk as town centre’s fate is left hanging in the balance

The boarded-up windows and ‘to let” signs dotted along Falkirk High Street are a familiar sight in town centres across Scotland as the country emerges from Covid.

The pre-pandemic crisis in the retail sector has escalated in the two years thanks to a surge in online shopping.

In the historic heart of Falkirk, businesses in the once-bustling town centre are battling for survival.

But there is more anger than dismay at its current plight after a controversial decision by councillors to put on hold a £45 million culture-led development, which had been hoped to trigger a revival of the town centre.

Douglas Cameron is director of the Eden Consultancy Group and a member of the Falkirk Health High Street campaign group. Picture: John Devlin

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    Over the past decade, the town centre's future had become inextricably linked with proposals to replace the existing run-down council headquarters and its adjacent town hall, two 1960s buildings long said to have fallen into disrepair.

    When a long-time eyesore block at the west end of the High Street was announced last summer as the proposed home for a new multi-purpose arts centre, library, offices and studio spaces, there was genuine optimism it would help shift the town centre away from its traditional reliance on major retailers who have largely relocated.

    Those hopes were dashed within months when the minority SNP administration failed to win the backing of Labour and Conservative councillors, who demanded officials return to the drawing board and look again at the case for refurbishing the existing buildings after raising concerns about the cost of the new development and a shortage of parking facilities.

    Margaret Foy, chair of the Healthy High Street campaign, said: “The retailers in the town centre got together a few years ago because of the inaction over its [redevelopment].

    Margaret Foy is chair of the Falkirk Healthy High Street campaign group and marketing manager of the Howgate Centre. Picture: John Devlin

    “Falkirk always had a thriving town centre because of the mix of independent and national businesses.

    "But it’s been badly affected in recent years by online and out-of-town shopping, including the departure of a lot of national retailers.

    "The major issue in the town centre has been a real lack of investment. Everyone is aware that town centres need to change from being predominantly retail to a mixed use of retail, leisure and offices if they are to survive. In Falkirk, the council has more or less abandoned it.”

    There are concerns that unless the High Street development can be salvaged, Falkirk will lose out on a promise of around £10 million in funding from the UK and Scottish governments to help create a new “regionally significant arts centre,” part of an £80m package of support announced last year.

    Lauren Brown is the owner of Sisters & Misters clothing designer clothing store in Falkirk town centre. Picture: John Devlin

    Another Healthy High Street campaigner, Douglas Cameron, director of the Eden Consultancy Group, said: “All the evidence from official reports suggest that there would be minimal savings in pursuing redevelopment of the existing sites, without any of the benefits you would get with the High Street site.

    “The real irony is that the Scottish and UK governments have united to put £10m on the table after identifying Falkirk town centre as a growth area. It just not acceptable that small-time politics should get in the way of progress.”

    Falkirk town centre manager Elaine Grant said: “We really need the council to make bold decisions to address the lack of investment in the town centre and drive footfall back up. It feels as if we are ready to fall off a cliff if we don’t see that soon.

    “But this isn’t just about the business community. Many people in Falkirk see the High Street as the heart of their local community and they see a town centre that’s in desperate need of investment.

    Falkirk Council Leader Cecil Meiklejohn. Lisa Evans

    "Large retailers are not just not prepared to invest in town centre sites these days. We need to look at other opportunities.

    "A new arts centre in the town centre would have a phenomenal impact on local businesses. Falkirk is just being left behind other places like Dunfermline and Perth which have them.

    "All parties should be working together to strive to achieve a town centre that everyone can be proud of. That’s just not been happening.”

    Andrew Harkins, owner of the Corner Cafe in the town centre, said: “Coming out of the pandemic, there is a lot of uncertainty around and costs are rising.

    "It’s been hanging over businesses whether or not the council headquarters are going to relocate to the town centre. We just want to see some action now.

    “It’s the number one issue for us – the impact would be enormous. It would provide a huge amount of confidence to owners of businesses, big and small.

    Falkirk Town Hall and the council's municipal buildings. Picture: Alan Murray

    “At the moment, it’s in the balance for a lot of people whether they will renew their leases or not.”

    Lauren Brown, owner of designer clothing store Sisters & Misters, said: “Things are just horrific at the moment.

    “Falkirk traditionally had a brilliant town centre. However, it's really been neglected for the best part of 15 years.

    "We’ve been constantly campaigning and asking the council to address the issues around the High Street, but they’ve continually been ignored. The town centre’s been left to go to rack and ruin.

    “We have the Falkirk Wheel, the Kelpies and the Helix Park in the area now, but the historic town centre has just been forgotten about.”

    Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn insisted she had not given up of the arts centre vision being realised.

    She said: “I’m dreadfully worried that we have an opportunity that could make a real difference to the town centre that we will lose forever if we don’t take it and it will never recover.

    “People turn to the public sector at times like this to act as a catalyst. Bringing the council offices into the town centre, along with an arts centre and a library, would create an iconic place to act as that catalyst, while we encourage people to live in the town centre, which will all drive up footfall to make it economically viable for businesses.”

    FalkirkMost voted party 2017: SNPCurrent control: SNP minorityLeader: Cecil MeiklejohnNumber of elected councillors: 30Number of electoral wards: 9Key issues: Town centre regeneration, fuel poverty, employment, tourism, housing, climate change

    Falkirk town centre manager Elaine Grant. Picture: John Devlin
    Andrew Harkins is owner of the Corner Cafe in Falkirk town centre. Picture: John Devlin
    An image of what Falkirk's proposed new arts centre would look like if the previously-rejected plans were revived.
    Falkirk town centre. Picture: John Devlin
    The Falkirk High Street branch of Marks and Spencer closed in 2018. Picture: Michael Gillen