Centring on Borders’ economy

I was heartened to read the front-page story in last week’s Southern about the need for fresh thinking on the future of Borders’ town centres.

It is vital that this debate takes place and that as many people as possible feed into the local plan.

Work, leisure and shopping patterns have changed – instead of trying to turn back time, we need fresh approaches and new uses for our town centres that match what residents, consumers and business owners want. Developments such as the Borders railway transport hub in Galashiels will have a key role in bringing more people into the town. If we want happier, busier town centres we need to look at new ways to attract more economically active people into them, conducting a wider range of activities.

For many years the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland has been working hard on this issue and looking at how to develop an innovative town centre policy.

Research among our own members in Scotland shows that one fifth of them do not own or rent premises, preferring to work from home for reasons of cost. Locally, the FSB Borders branch took the FSB’s manifesto for May’s local government elections to councillors and I am pleased to see that our calls for fresh thinking on town centres have been heard by economic development spokesman Councillor Stuart Bell and repeated in your article.

Our local authorities can put businesses back into the heart of our towns by turning some of the properties they own in town centres into affordable business premises for firms other than those in retail. Other public bodies can also do their bit by choosing to locate their premises in town centres rather than on the outskirts.

By diversifying the sort of people that come into towns, we can revitalise our town centres and bring people back to the existing retail outlets.

But to do this we also need to look at the issue of car parking.

We know that a strong independent retailer sector is at the heart of a thriving town centre and places like Melrose are a good example of this.

But if customers cannot access their local shops either because of insufficient car parking or over-priced parking charges, then the centre will lose customers to other locations.

Borders planners need to look at relaxing their existing prime retail rules at the same time as thinking about how town-centre visitors will get there and park.

Small businesses have a positive role to play in shaping town centres and nurturing the economy as shopping and social habits change. But they can’t do it alone and we all need to do our part.

That is why the FSB is happy to sit on the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review Group. There is no quick fix to solve the problems being seen in our high streets – but recognising that small businesses are at the heart of the solution and taking an innovative approach to town centre policy will give us the foundations on which to develop a successful strategy.

Graham Bell

(Borders chairman,

Federation of Small Businesses)