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February 25, 2009

£60m Town Centre Fund

There’s no sadder sign of economic decline than the collapse of the High Street in Scotland’s small towns – empty shops sap the morale of communities. A new fund has been created to encourage local communities to come up with ideas to get their Main Street bustling again

Out-of-town shopping malls, edge-of-town supermarket developments, poor planning decisions and the credit crunch have conspired to create an identity crisis for many of Scotland’s towns.

Can a new Scottish Government £60m Town Centre Regeneration Fund, announced earlier this month, help? Details of how the money will be used have still to be announced, although a structure will be put in place in the new financial year, starting in April. Already, however, towns all over Scotland are dreaming of what might be.

The historic former mill town of Paisley has suffered badly since the opening of the Braehead shopping mall a few miles out of town.

David Ramsay, secretary of Paisley North community council, says that should Paisley receive new government money, the priority should be to make the High Street more accessible. “The pedestrianisation of the town centre has been hugely detrimental because people can not easily get to the shops, and a result the big names have pulled out,” he says, citing the halcyon days when Paisley could boast stores such as House of Fraser, Arnotts, Marks & Spencer, Littlewoods, Woolworths and the Co-op. M&S is still there but has been downgraded to an outlet store, while the Clarks shoe shop has moved to Braehead. The rest of the High Street is dominated by pound stores, charity shops and bars.

Renfrewshire Council Leader Derek Mackay says: “I’ve already spoken to John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, and stressed the importance of funding being available to help regenerate traditional town centres such as Paisley.”

There are plans to refurbish the town hall and to create a museum and library complex there.

John Wilby, chairman of the Paisley West and Central community council, says: “Paisley has much potential with its close proximity to an international airport, and it could be developed as a base and launchpad for tourism. Its rich heritage could also be further exploited as a visitor attraction.”

A “new town” in Fife, Glenrothes recently won the infamous Plook on the Plinth award from the Scottish architecture magazine Prospect, thanks to its “depressed, investment-starved centre”.

Prospect is hosting a conference in April at which community groups, the local MP and architects will be invited to contribute ideas of how to improve the town’s “outdated” planning and architecture. The majority of the town centre is contained indoors in the Kingdom Shopping Centre, which is something that John Glenday of Prospect feels should be reversed.

“Realigning the town centre to create a more traditional street pattern and to build shops that face outwards would be part of our masterplan in an ideal world,” he told The Herald. But he agrees that merely throwing money at town centres is not the whole answer. “You need the consensus of local people. After all they’re the ones who live, work, shop and socialise there.”

Ronald Page of the Glenrothes Area Futures Group, which is made up of community councils, resident groups and local churches, says: “The Plook on the Plinth award coincides with the aims and objectives of the Glenrothes Area Futures Group, set up one year ago and very much supported by the people in this area, especially in terms of a quest for a new Glenrothes town centre plan.

“We reckon Fife Council has ignored the Glenrothes area for 10 to 15 years.”

From his little shop window filled with last-minute deals to sunny places, travel agent Menzies McGee has watched change visit his town. He was born here, he grew up here and for the last 18 years has run his business here, but the community he once knew isn’t what it was. “Cumnock has gone downhill,” he says. “It used to have a bustling centre.”

The reason for this change is obvious: the dark hole created by the collapse of mining, textiles and farming. The promised solution is also obvious: physical, economic and social regeneration. The question is: when?

Soon, says Elizabeth Morton, deputy chief executive of East Ayrshire Council. “We should see a change in the physical environment in the next two to three years.” She is talking about a planning application for new £8m council offices, lodged last week. Just on the edge of the town there are also plans – led by Prince Charles – for a new community called Knockroon.

There’s another possible saviour, some might say an unlikely one: the supermarket. Nine thousand people live here, yet you can’t even do a proper weekly shop. So now the council is trying to attract a Tesco or an Asda. Mention the supermarket to locals, though, and eyes start to roll: they’ll believe it when they see it. After all, there’s now a recession to consider. Developers that were building here a year ago have stopped. Along one road out of the town is a row of beautiful new houses – beautiful new empty houses.

Back in his shop opposite the statue of Keir Hardie, Cumnockian and founder of the Labour Party, Menzies McGee mentions another important part of the solution. “The people are still the same,” he says. It is one of the things in this determined little town that shouldn’t change.

Musselburgh’s past might well be its future, as the town looks to tourism for new opportunities. In the 1960s, townspeople were employed in fishing, mining or the paper, cotton or wire mills. “You could finish work on a Friday and find another job straight away,” says Alan Hay, a lifelong resident and vice-chairman of the community council. Things have changed dramatically: “Musselburgh will get badly hit by the credit crunch because it’s now a labour force for Edinburgh’s employers like Standard Life and the Royal Bank.”

Local retailers have struggled to compete with Tesco and the Fort Kinnaird shopping complex three miles away. “At one time we had five shoe shops and three gents’ outfitters; now we have none of either,” says Mr Hay.

Chocolate-shop-owner Elaine di Rollo of the famous local ice-cream dynasty has felt the pinch. “From a business point of view, I don’t think there’s a lot to keep people here,” she says. Youth unemployment is a growing concern.

Tourism is one area the town hopes to develop, says Mr Hay, highlighting the famous race course, the world’s oldest golf course, a history dating back to the Romans and the famous John Muir Way. Old industrial buildings are already being converted. Eskmills, a former fishing-net factory, houses offices, an art gallery and a restaurant; the disused bingo hall is becoming a pub; and the wireworks is becoming a health centre.

Community spirit survives, but Mr Hay welcomes the notion of regeneration funding. “Good will and volunteers are worth their weight in gold, but money breathes fresh air into a community.”

West Kilbride
West Kilbride, a 19th- century former weaving town on the Ayrshire coast, has suffered from high unemployment and the detrimental effects of out-of-town shopping centres. At one point half the local shops were boarded up.

But it became Scotland’s first craft town in 1998, following the establishment of the West Kilbride Community Initiative (WKCI), a charity founded by local people to encourage skilled craftspeople to take over derelict shops and to plough profits back into the town. It has been so successful in regenerating the town that, in 2006, the craft town project won the Enterprising Britain competition against stiff challenges from multimillion- pound projects across the UK. West Kilbride is now generally regarded as the pioneer for town-centre regeneration.

“Regeneration starts with passion, willpower and consensus from local people, and grows from there. It doesn’t have to be about attracting the big-name retailers,” says Maggie Broadley of WKCI. “It’s about helping small independent local businesses.” Since the community initiative was launched, eight artists’ studios, an exhibition gallery, a delicatessen, a photography business, a clock and watch repairer, a bridal shop and a graphic design business have opened. In addition, the local butcher, baker and greengrocer have been able to maintain their presence in the town.

Broadley believes that neighbouring Saltcoats, Kilbirnie and Dalry could benefit from copying the blueprint established by West Kilbride, if new government money were to become available. “Resources would have to be committed at an early stage but our project has shown that it’s workable. It’s important to create clusters so you have a network of vibrant, thriving communities that can learn from each other.”

North Ayrshire Council has identified Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Stevenston as areas of greatest need for financial investment. West Kilbride, says Broadley, suffered from a perception of being a wealthy town.

“We weren’t in an area that attracted funding and we persisted with hard work for six years before Scottish Enterprise and the local authority came on board.

If we’d had input at an earlier stage, we could have made a bigger impact and got things moving more quickly.”