Planning policy changes suggested to halt decline of Borders’ high streets

Hawick High Street.
Hawick High Street.

Action is needed to halt the decline in footfall hitting the Borders’ high streets, according to a report to be discussed by councillors next week.

Footfall in Scottish Borders town centres has fallen dramatically over the last decade, and that has led to an increase in empty shop units.

Kelso town centre.

Kelso town centre.

A report set to go before Scottish Borders Council’s planning and building standards committee on Monday, July 16, outlines the challenges facing our town centres.

In Hawick, footfall has more than halved since 2007, and Selkirk and Duns have seen footfall reductions of 25% or more over that period.

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 the interim.

Empty shop fronts are an increasingly common sight across the UK, and the Borders is no different. Galashiels has been especially hard hit, with its proportion of vacant retail units now standing at 15% representing a total of 37 empty stores.

Hawick and Selkirk lag not far behind, with 14% apiece of their shops lying empty, and 13% of Jedburgh’s shops are also going spare.

Peebles, Kelso, Duns, Melrose and Eyemouth have all kept their proportion of empty shops in their town centres at 8% or below, though.

The purpose of the town centre core activity area pilot study is to suggest updating the council’s planning policy in a bid to save the region’s high streets.

In it, lead planning officer Charles Johnston says: “Retailing patterns continue to fluctuate, and the role of town centres is changing  for example, the increase of online shopping and competition from larger national retailers.

“The impacts of the current challenging economic climate are being felt across the country, and these trends are not unique to the Scottish Borders.

“Planning policy must adapt to these changing circumstances.

“In recent years, the council has amended its town centre policy in its local development plan to adapt to such changes, and whilst these changes have helped, it is acknowledged that a further review of relevant planning policy could be tested via this pilot study.

“There are specific immediate concerns regarding Hawick and Galashiels, where reduced footfall and vacancy rates have had a detrimental impact on how these town centres have performed.

“This is of particular concern as Hawick and Galashiels are the two largest towns within the Borders and have a strategic economic and social significance for the region.”

The report recommends the council tries out pilot schemes in Hawick and Galashiels, either scrapping or altering their core activity area status marking out the boundaries of their commercial centres to allow a greater range of activity to take place within them.

Planning permission is usually only granted in such town centres if proposals are for business use in keeping with the surroundings of the sites in question, but abolishing core activity area status would allow non-commercial enterprises to occupy empty high street properties.

In Hawick, the report says, a radical approach is needed, so it recommends councillors to vote to abolish the core activity centre there altogether.

“Reducing the core area completely would, in essence, allow a greater number of other uses within the town centre,” it says.

“Whilst there is the threat that complete removal of the core activity area may cause longer-term footfall issues, it is considered that some significant action is required in Hawick.

“To implement this as a test case via a pilot scheme would seem an appropriate course of action in the circumstances.”

In Galashiels, it is recommended that core activity area is retained but that the scope of activity allowed be expanded to include professional service businesses, non-profitable institutions and leisure activities.

The outcomes of those proposed pilot schemes in Hawick and Galashiels, if approved, would then be used to draw up similar proposals for other towns.

In Hawick, 37 of 258 town centre units are currently empty, and the figure for Galashiels is also 37, out of 243. In Kelso, though, only 10 out of 166 units are unused, a vacancy rate of 6%.

Footfall in Hawick is down 52% over the decade to last year, and it was down 28% in Selkirk, 25% in Duns, 18% in Peebles, 17% in Galashiels, 16% in Jedburgh and 14% in Melrose, with only Kelso bucking that downward trend by holding steady and seeing no fall at all.