THE Borders’ senior councillor for economic development believes a controversial planning policy should be relaxed in order to save the region’s high streets.
The ED4 rule, which aims to protect prime retail frontage in town centres, was called into question at Galashiels Community Council after an application to turn an empty shop in a gym was initially turned down by Scottish Borders Council because it would lead to the loss of a class one shop unit.
However, last month the applicant, Christina Burns, with support from the community council, successfully appealed the decision to the local review body which included Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell. Now Mr Bell thinks the policy should be reconsidered, with a report earlier this year indicating the average weekly footfall in eight Borders towns had fallen by nearly 8,000 from 2007 to 2011.
The SNP member told TheSouthern: “I agree with those in Galashiels Community Council who believe the policy should be relaxed in order to encourage business into town centres across the Borders during these difficult economic times when footfalls have fallen across the region.”
He added: “There is a growing opinion in the council that we should think more about Prime People Frontage rather than Prime Retail Frontage – perhaps even change the wording – and try to identify those activities and businesses that will attract people to come into our town centres so they become places where the public relax and enjoy themselves.
“This might be a bit of retail therapy or it might, for example, be medical therapy, such as visiting a chiropractor or a gym.
“Our town centres need to be places where people can meet and chat, and at the same time pay for goods and services, thus generating economic activity.
“This is a vision for a new future for our town centres – it challenges current planning thinking.
“The hard reality is that we must do something to counter the decline and deterioration in some of our town centres.
“The restricted planning designation of Prime Retail Frontage has perhaps had its day.”
Mr Bell believes SBC now has a great opportunity to improve town centres throughout the Borders, with its Local Plan currently being reviewed.
“Some of the current decline in footfall in our towns is a result of the growth of internet and out-of-town shopping, and we may never reverse all of the decline, but I believe we must adapt our planning policies to give every boost possible to our town centres,” Mr Bell told us.
Agents for the Galashiels gym application on Channel Street had written to SBC claiming the ED4 policy was damaging the vitality and viability of the town centre.
Galashiels councillor Bill White says action needs to be taken by both the local authority and businesses, with footfall decreasing in his ward by 14.5 per cent over a four-year period, while neighbouring town Selkirk saw a more dramatic fall of more than 30 per cent.
Mr White added: “Certainly it is something SBC should look at. If the legislation was amended it would help a lot of high streets in the Borders which are not in a great shape, particularly Galashiels.
“The businesses themselves need to get together and decide what they are going to do.
“There are real tough times ahead, especially when Christmas is out of the way and the stores are faced with less trade and tax bills in January.
“I have been assured there is interest in a number of properties in Galashiels but the policy should be changed because of the circumstances we are now in.”
An SBC spokesman said the preferred option as part of this year’s Local Development Plan Main Issues report was to “take a more proactive approach to town centre frontage areas that would allow consideration of uses that provide public activity in the core retail areas where the demand for shops may be insufficient”.
The spokesman added that the council will put together a proposed plan in spring next year.
But Galashiels Chamber of Trade co-chairman David Houston believes SBC should be wary of loosening the rules due to the current economic climate.
He told us: “In Galashiels, we have the introduction of the transport interchange in two years which is due to change the face of the town centre for the long term.
“You don’t want to be altering rules for the long term when there are huge changes ahead.
“The transport interchange is designed to push footfall into Channel Street, and that is where you want your retail rather than non-retail units.”