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Business group calls for cash injection to boost town centres

Scotland's flagship high street revival projects show the need for a more co-ordinated boost for town centre regeneration, a leading business group has warned.

CONCERN: Ken McArthur runs a jeweller in the centre of Gourock. Picture: Kirsty Anderson
CONCERN: Ken McArthur runs a jeweller in the centre of Gourock. Picture: Kirsty Anderson

The Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI) says the current Business Improvement District initiatives, funded from levies agreed by local traders, need to be built on with further government action.

Ross Martin, SCDI chief executive, said: "Town centre revival has been given added profile and impetus but it needs hard cash."

He pointed to options including joint venture partnerships with developers and a possible new fund.

Town centre regeneration is one of the areas being spotlighted in The Herald's SME-SOS campaign highlighting key economic blocks on Scotland's vital small business sector.

Last November the Scottish Government extended rates relief for SMEs and for firms taking on empty property and proposed council-led town centre investment zones.

It also launched a regeneration competition for entrepreneurs, describing the £2 million package as "a new era for town centres".

But the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said key issues such as parking, planning, traffic management, access and rents had been neglected. Business groups said £2 million would not go far among 32 local authorities.

In December a report for the Institute for Retail Studies and Stirling University found almost 15 per cent of shops were currently lying empty, with more than 40 per cent of that space vacant for over a year.

Blackspots included Inverness with 18 per cent and the likes of Banff and Huntly with almost one in three empty shops.

Earlier this month Derek Mackay, the planning and local government minister, urged public agencies to adopt a 'town centre first principle' when relocating facilities.

That principle was the key measure proposed a year ago by the National Review of Town Centres under architect Malcolm Fraser, who last week called for further action in the form of tax incentives.

Falkirk led the way 25 years ago in town centre management. Head of economic development Douglas Duff said of the government's call: "We are all with the grain of this…but clearly there are lots of challenges, all of us of are having to run very hard to stand still.

"There are going to be challenges on how it is implemented and how you go about applying it."

The council has decided to redevelop its headquarters on the existing central site "to show faith with the town centre - there were a lot of alternatives out of town and on the periphery", Mr Duff said.

"It is a very challenging project in a situation where the council faces big challenges for its budget."

Falkirk's strategies have already attracted £34 million in grants and investments, it is the first council to offer specialised training for small retailers, its 'Think Falkirk' group is behind a ideas such as 'free after 3' parking, and there is now a MyFalkirk app. But councils' aspirations in their local plans for a new mix of uses "need to be matched with tax measures", Mr Duff said.

"To make a difference in attracting housing into town centres it helps if you have got something to prime the pot."

The SCDI's Mr Martin said a funding mechanism such as tax incremental financing (TIF), where councils can borrow against future income, should be available to public agencies for investment in their facilities.

He added: "Town centres should be hubs of activity - cultural and social as well as economic, with local people starting a conversation about that in each town."

Barrhead is "the perfect example of town centre regeneration in action", according to East Renfrewshire Council's convener for infrastructure Councillor Tony Buchanan.

He said: "There has been £80 million of council-led regeneration in Barrhead town centre in recent years.

"The council built its second major headquarters on the Main Street...the first community health and care partnership HQ in Scotland is alongside it.....and there has been investment in improving the look of the main shopping areas."

Andy Willox, policy convener at the FSB, welcomed the initiatives so far, but added: "We have to make our high streets attractive to all sorts organisations - large and small, public and private.

"Premises need to be affordable, accessible and appropriate. Our centres need to be safe, well-maintained and digitally connected."

They also need to be public transport connected, says transport giant FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole: "The report by retail guru Mary Portas ignored the fact that 40 per cent of high street footfall arrives by bus."

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