THE decline of Scotland's high streets is well documented.
Apart from the big city centres and a few well-heeled, trendy enclaves, traditional shopping areas have been ravaged over the past few years. The rise of online shopping was already taking its toll when the banks crashed, but the recession and economic stagnation that followed dramatically hastened the demise of towns the length and breadth of the country, where rattling shutters and "To Let" signs have become the bleak backdrop to everyday life for far too many people.
On the face of it, then, today's news that store openings are beginning to outstrip closures is very welcome. Take a closer look at the figures, though, and there is precious little really to cheer about.
Internet victims such as fashion and shoe stores, camera shops and jewellers are still closing at a faster rate than last year. In their place have come fast-food takeaways, bookies, discounters, cheque-cashing stores and pawnbrokers. An urban revival this is not, even if there are slightly fewer empty units blighting streets.
Our shared public spaces are important. They have been described, rightly, by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as the lifeblood of our communities, places where people meet, where businesses can be born, where creativity can flourish. They should be a source of local pride, not a depressing reminder of how hard life has become. Yet it's equally clear, given the long-term changes in shopping habits, that high streets will not fix themselves. In 2010 the Scottish Government found £60 million for a town centre regeneration fund but the exercise was not repeated as it proved difficult to show the cash had the hoped-for impact. Since then, the architect Malcolm Fraser has been called in to provide a more rounded view of town centre transformation.
His report, published in the summer, described traditional town centres as the "true eco-towns" of the future, ripe for renewal and ready to be recycled. Why, he asked, build out of town and let historic, well-loved streets and buildings moulder?
Specifically, the report highlighted the need to develop housing in town centres and for public bodies to ensure facilities and services continue to be provided in the high street rather than shifted to shiny new buildings on the outskirts. The vision was inspiring and widely welcomed by politicians and business people. Steps to achieve it, however, have been tentative. The Scottish Government has created a town centre housing fund but the amount set aside, £2m, is only enough to finance a small handful of demonstration projects to test the idea.
The closing date for bids, as it happens, is tomorrow and schemes to turn empty flats above shops, run-down retail units and boarded-up hotels into affordable housing will be considered. If the schemes are to be a success, as the experts expect, let us hope serious money, on the scale of the old town centre regeneration fund, can be found somewhere in the Scottish Government's under-pressure budgets to breathe new life into many more places.
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