A major development was revealed this week which may point to better times for Scotland’s most famous, and biggest, new town.

Details of a £100 million masterplan to radically reimagine East Kilbride shopping centre present a bold vision for an urban area which has found the going tough in recent years, with empty units becoming the norm amid the wider structural change taking place across the retail sector.

Indeed, the owner of the shopping centre, Sapphire, has been in administration since November, after a series of tenants left in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The demise of Debenhams as a bricks and mortar retailer in 2021 was a savage blow, with the disappearance of the biggest occupant deepening the sense of pessimism about the long-term future of the centre at the heart of the country’s first new town, which can trace its roots back to the immediate post-war years.

Now, though, there is hope that brighter times lie ahead.

As exclusively reported in The Herald on Monday, a new blueprint has been drawn up which promises to “redefine” the town centre and the way people utilise the area. The plans envisage a radical reduction in the amount of retail floor space – more than a third of the existing shopping centre would be demolished - while introducing new homes, a hotel and civic space.

READ MORE: East Kilbride £100million redevelopment plan revealed

At the heart of the plans is a recognition that town centres such as East Kilbride can no longer count on the retail sector alone for their vitality and, from a community perspective, must find reasons for people congregate and spend time there. The fact that the new scheme envisages retaining the town centre’s Odeon cinema and ice rink speaks to a belief that leisure facilities will have a key role to play in this regard.

“I would like to think it would restore some civic pride,” said Mark Hewitt of Scoop Asset Management, which was drafted in by administrators at Interpath Advisory to run the centre and come up with a plan to revive it.

"We are redefining East Kilbride's function as a town. It needs to refocus to serve its own population first and foremost.”

While information has yet to be disclosed on the timeline envisaged for the project – there will be numerous planning hurdles to clear, and of course investment and tenants will have to be secured – it is hard to imagine anyone with East Kilbride’s interests at heart disagreeing with the thrust of the proposals.

For too long now, there has been an air of resignation around the future of not just East Kilbride but other provincial town centres in Scotland, as the ability of retailers to retain a physical presence on the high street has become steadily harder.

READ MORE: East Kilbride: The story of Scotland's first new town

This trend was well established before the pandemic, as online retailing surged in popularity and consumers migrated to the newer out-of-town shopping destinations (East Kilbride, for one, has suffered in the face of competition from Silverburn and Braehead), and has been turbo-charged since, amid the cost of living crisis and surge in interest rates over the last year or more.

The impact of these shifting sands has been perfectly, if grimly, illustrated by the sad collapse of Wilko, the homewares chain which felt into administration in August. A potential rescue deal involving HMV fell through earlier this week, which effectively ended attempts by administrators at PwC to save the business. More than 100 stores will close, and thousands of jobs will be lost, albeit Poundland has since struck a deal to take on 71 of the units.

The failure of Wilko, which some experts said had too many stores in traditional high street locations that were not easily accessible by car, means another famous retail name is likely to disappear, following in the footsteps of Woolworths, BHS, Debenhams, and Top Shop owner Arcadia Group, to name but a few.

Its demise is hugely regrettable for everyone who is likely to lose their job, and to a lesser extent for people who shop in Wilko. There is also a degree of poignancy that a business with roots going back to 1930 has no distance left to run.

What the struggles of Wilko, which unfortunately are likely to be mirrored at other high street retailers, also abundantly demonstrate is the waning ability of retail to underpin town centres in the manner it once did.

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Of course, retail is always going to have a significant role to play. The big stores will continue to maintain a presence in key areas and be a magnet for footfall. And there is always likely to be a place for the independent retailers which can find a niche by offering things that are a little bit different to the mainstream.

But in order for town centres to truly thrive, retail must be part of a bigger picture in which people engage with urban spaces where they also live, socialise, and utilise other services.

Thankfully, it is not only the people behind the East Kilbride plans who recognise this.

North Lanarkshire Council is planning a multi-million-pound programme to regenerate Cumbernauld town centre, after purchasing the site in July. Its vision is to establish a “multi-use” urban centre, spanning homes, offices, new retail, and other amenities in what council leader Jim Logue declared was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for the town.

“Once hailed as a new town of the future, Cumbernauld will once again be seen as a forerunner for more inclusive, greener, and better-connected town-centre living,” he said.

Such aspirations, much like the plans for East Kilbride, are bold, and much work will have to be done before there is any discernible sense of these lofty aspirations turning into reality.

But after so many years of decline it is at the very least encouraging to see some action and determination to change things for the better.