Plans to close 11 sheriff courts throughout Scotland have been criticised for failing to take account of their impact on local traders, with business leaders warning that the move is at odds with Scottish Government plans to regenerate town centres.
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) is currently consulting on proposals to shut sheriff courts in areas such as Alloa, Haddington and Stonehaven as part of an overhaul aimed at saving more than £1.4 million a year. Justice of the peace courts in Annan, Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Irvine and Motherwell have also been earmarked for closure.
The Law Society of Scotland has warned the changes could restrict access to justice, particularly in rural areas, and yesterday the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland said the closures will place extra strain on high streets and local economies that are already struggling against competition from the internet and the growth of out-of-town shopping centres.
A number of high-profile retailer have collapsed in recent months, including Clinton Cards, Comet and JJB Sports, and shoe retailer Stead & Simpson last week unveiled plans to close 90 stores, including seven in Scotland.
According to a recent report from commercial property consultant GVA, almost a third of Scotland’s local authorities are planning to offer business rates relief or rent reductions in a bid to revive Scotland’s high streets.
Architect Malcolm Fraser was appointed by the Scottish Government in September to lead a task force charged with reversing a trend that has seen businesses move to the outskirts, leaving town centres blighted by vacant shops and economic decline. The National Review of Town Centres is due to report its findings to ministers in March and will address issues such as planning, rents and rates, competition and empty properties.
In its response to the SCS consultation, which closes on Friday, the FSB said the loss of courts could damage the long-term prospects of Scotland’s town centres, as they will suffer reduced footfall and the removal of “well-paid public sector workers’ spending power”.
The FSB’s Scottish policy convenor, Andy Willox, urged Lord Gill, chair of the SCS board, to carry out a detailed analysis into the impact on town centres before pressing ahead with the closures.
He added: “The FSB is currently contributing to the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres. It seems odd that the consultation on court closures closes before this group will have time to report.”
In its consultation document, the SCS said any economic impact from the closures would be “localised, minimal and short-term”.
A spokesman for the SCS said: “In our consultation report we recognise that there is the potential for economic impact in some communities where courts might close but we are also able to evidence that, where surplus facilities have been released in the past, new economic activities have emerged.
“Those courts proposed for closure have been identified due to their low volumes of court business and their proximity to other court buildings, which should reduce the impact their closure could be expected to have on the area.”
He added: “The purpose of the current consultation into the future structure of the SCS is to allow all those with an interest in the proposals to contribute their views and interests and we welcome this contribution from the FSB.”