Council vows to cut red tape in bid to save Borders’ high streets

Hawick High Street.
Hawick High Street.

Councillors have voted to relax restrictions on new businesses opening in Hawick and Galashiels town centres in a bid to arrest the decline of their high streets.

Members of Scottish Borders Council’s planning and building standards committee today agreed to a recommendation by council officers that they no longer limit the types of business allowed to open in Hawick’s High Street.

Galashiels town centre seen from the air.

Galashiels town centre seen from the air.

Previously, only businesses the council believed would generate footfall, such as restaurants and clothes shops, were granted permission to open there, but councillors have now elected to remove that red tape for a one-year trial period.

They have also agreed not to insist on contributions from developers to provide extra funding for schools, playparks and amenities.

In Galashiels, however, the committee agreed to retain restrictions on the types of business permitted to open in Channel Street and Bank Street, but it did agree to take a much more flexible approach allowing previously-barred businesses to open in the heart of the town centre.

Leisure businesses and offices offering professional or financial services will now be tolerated along the town’s two main shopping streets, and businesses such as tattoo shops and travel agents will be allowed providing they can prove they will generate footfall.

The impact made by those changes in regulations for both towns’ retail hubs will be assessed over the next year, and if the trial initiative is judged to be a success, it will be tried out in the region’s other towns too.

A report presented to the committee by Charles Johnston,the council’s lead officer for plans and research, said that action must be taken immediately to save the region’s town centres.

“This now means that any business that would get permission to open in the wider town centre would now stand a good chance of getting permission within the core activity area,” he said.

“The reality is are we really going to get a town centre without vacant properties?

“To measure the success of the pilot scheme, we will look a footfall figures and vacancy rates.

“Through time, the monitoring process should give us a good idea of how well the pilot is doing.”

Kelso councillor Simon Mountford said: “I’m personally pretty supportive at this stage of the discussion. I think we should suck it and see.”

The report shows that in Hawick, footfall has more than halved since 2007, and Selkirk and Duns have seen reductions of a quarter.

Melrose, Jedburgh, Galashiels and Peebles have all seen reductions of between 14% and 18%, but Kelso has managed to return its footfall numbers to 2007 levels following a slump in previous years.

Empty shop fronts are an increasingly common sight across the UK, and the Borders is no different, especially Galashiels as its vacancy rate for retail units now stands at 15%,.

Hawick and Selkirk lag not far behind, with 14% of their shops lying empty, and 13% of Jedburgh’s are vacant too.

Speaking after the meeting, Leaderdale and Melrose councillor Tom Miers, the authority’s executive member for planning and environment, said: “These changes will make it easier for new businesses to invest in our towns.

“We need to move with the times and recognise that high streets are shifting away from traditional retail towards a broader mix of leisure, business and specialist shopping.

“This pilot scheme will test new policies to help that process while preserving the essential character and vibrancy of our towns.

“Towns like Hawick, with its magnificent High Street, have enormous potential, and this council is determined to unlock that and encourage new business, new life and new dynamism amidst the superb built heritage that we already enjoy.”

Mid Berwickshire councillor Mark Rowley, the council’s executive member for business and economic development, added: “We hope the removal of restrictions in Hawick and Galashiels will create more opportunities in both town centres for a more diverse range of businesses attractive to residents and visitors alike.

“The initiative should support a number of exciting projects going ahead in both towns.

“In Hawick, we have an action plan which is starting to revitalise its economy and drive further inward investment and tourism.

“In Galashiels, the Great Tapestry of Scotland complex is kick-starting the delivery of the Galashiels Masterplan, our ambitious vision to encourage investment in the town and the Borders economy from both the public and private sector, with investors already exploring exciting projects.”