Last week’s rethink of planning rules in the hope of reviving Hawick and Galashiels’ high streets has been welcomed by councillors in the two towns.
Scottish Borders Council’s planning and building standards committee has agreed to no longer restrict the types of business allowed to open in Hawick’s High Street for a one-year trial period.
In Galashiels, restrictions will be retained on the types of business permitted to open in Channel Street and Bank Street, but the committee did agree to take a more flexible approach allowing previously-barred businesses to operate there.
The impact made by those changes in regulations for both towns’ retail hubs will be assessed over the next year, and if the pilot project is judged to be a success, it will be tried out in the region’s other towns too.
Galashiels councillor Harry Smith said: “I’m generally in favour of the plans as long as the changes will allow businesses to open which will bring people into the town centre.
“Big-chain retail businesses are seeking to close shops rather than open them and are looking more and more to do business online.
“Many of the big retail chains see towns in the Borders as being too small to support the level of business they deem to be profitable, so we need to rethink the strategy.
“Nothing will happen overnight, but initiatives like the city deal and Borderlands deal, which will bring much-needed investment into the Borders, will hopefully ignite a regeneration of our town centres, along with the proposed relaxation of the planning rules.”
Judith Cleghorn, chairwoman of Galashiels Community Council, is also in favour, saying: “I’d welcome anything that increases footfall into Galashiels, but I think we’re in a slightly different position to Hawick because of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, which I think will be an amazing asset and attract businesses to the town and increase footfall.”
Hawick and Denholm councillor Stuart Marshall is even more positive, saying: “I’m absolutely delighted that planning rules around our town centre are to be changed, and with this pilot scheme being trialled in Hawick, I’m certainly of the opinion that such change can only serve to tackle some of the main issues that our High Street and town centre are facing at the moment.
“Everyone is well aware of how retail and shopping habits have changed in recent years, and this, in turn, has sparked an increase in vacancy rates as well as a downturn in footfall, so it’s only right that planning policies also react to such change.
“Hopefully, the removal of so many rules and restrictions will, in turn, complement the other pieces of work that are currently under way in order to breathe new life into our High Street and town centre.”
Fellow Hawick and Denholm councillor Clair Ramage, a member of the planning committee, added: “I am only too aware of the changes that we have seen on Hawick High Street over the years.
“When I first moved to Hawick 40 years ago, the High Street had garages, hotels and was a vibrant shopping centre.
“There was a variety of shops – toyshops and shoe shops etc – but with the changes to shopping habits, we have seen the demise of high streets across the country.
“By bringing in these changes, and a more versatile approach, it is hoped that we will see more varied businesses and encourage more footfall.
“Empty shops define the High Street, creating a sense of dereliction, and hopefully with this more flexible approach, it will change the fortunes of our town centre.”
Also cautiously supportive is Hawick and Hermitage councillor Davie Paterson.
He said: “Everyone wants to see our high streets busy again, but we have to be sure that we are putting in the correct type of business so that they complement their upstairs neighbours.”
“If you just consider it, there are a lot of people that live in the High Street above some of the shops. There seems to be an abundance of café-type businesses on the High Street and nice places to have a meal, but if there were a lot more, would it be sustainable?
“I recently put in an objection on behalf of several constituents who were unhappy at the prospect of having a grill below them and fears of house prices plummeting if the wrong business was going in to vacant premises.
“Let’s not forget that the houseowners that live on the High Street are living there 24/7. How much consultation took place with them?
“After chatting to a constituent, I am keen to push the idea of a High Street residents’ association.”