The Department for Work and Pensions is weighing up its options” after being refused planning consent to move its Galashiels jobcentre to a town centre shopping precinct.
Its relocation bid was unanimously rejected by Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee on Monday.
Councillors ruled that the DWP’s proposed destination – the former Internacionale fashion store in pedestrianised Douglas Bridge – should be retained for retail use despite having been empty for the past three years.
Asked if an appeal would be lodged with the Scottish Government, a DWP spokeswoman told the Southern: “We are aware of the committee’s decision and are currently considering our options.”
The bid for change of use, from retail to office, was drawn up by the department as part of a bid to streamline its estate across the UK.
It wanted to switch its Galashiels operation from New Reiver House, behind High Street, to smaller, more central premises in the retail complex linking the town’s transport interchange with Channel Street.
The move was opposed by Galashiels Chamber of Trade, with chairman Craig Murray arguing: “Douglas Bridge is now the most important gateway into the town centre for visitors arriving by bus on train.
“It is vital we promote Galashiels as a thriving, busy, vibrant destination, but an office development in this area would not give the best first impression.”
Mr Murray also cited the scheduled opening in 2020 of a £6.7m visitor centre for the Great Tapestry of Scotland at the top of Channel Street and claimed that attraction, along with other planned developments could be adversely affected by the proposal.
In their submission, agents for the DWP noted that the Douglas Bridge premises, two adjoining retail units, had been actively marketed for over 18 months with no takers.
“The proposed development would result in a footfall increase of a minimum of 150 people per day, resulting in additional joint shopping trips. It would bring vacant units back into active use, thus contributing to the vitality and viability of the town centre,” stated the agents.
That was a view shared by council planning team leader Carlos Clarke, and he recommended approval of the bid.
“On balance, the contribution it would make to the town centre, if not significant, is preferable to the potential for the units to continue to remain unoccupied,” he said.
Galashiels councillor Sandy Aitchison said: “On the one hand, we don’t want vacant shops, but on the other, we must give Galashiels time to reach its potential as a vibrant town.
“This will not happen overnight, but with the tapestry coming, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.
“The tapestry presents a unique opportunity to regenerate Galashiels and, in my view, we must look at the long game by preserving for retail use this important part of town.”
The committee agreed and refused the application, citing a planning policy aimed at preserving the core retail function of Galashiels town centre.
Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP Christine Grahame welcomed that rebuff, saying: “The jobcentre provides an essential service, but there would have been no advantage to those using it in the move, and I believe siting it on Douglas Bridge would have been a short sighted attempt to fill empty units.
“Hopefully, now Galashiels can move forwards with a longer-term vision of regeneration.”
“I take the view that Douglas Bridge ought to be a gateway to the town centre, with passengers from the new transport interchange crossing the river and making their way into Channel Street and, eventually, onwards to the new tapestry centre.
“First impressions count, and on arrival into town, visitors should be met with the best retail and eateries Galashiels has to offer, which is why I previously wrote to the council to make my views on this known.
“I do, therefore, welcome this sensible decision.”