Business berates Government’s high street rescue

Town centres have suffered with thousands of shops expected to vanish in the next few years. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Town centres have suffered with thousands of shops expected to vanish in the next few years. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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A SCOTTISH Government “action plan” to breathe new life into Scotland’s ailing high streets and stop thousands of shops from disappearing has come under fire from business chiefs and opposition parties.

They claimed that measures set out yesterday in the Town Centre Action Plan are not enough to revive these areas which have suffered in recent years with the shift to out-of-town retail parks.

The government’s plans will offer pubs, restaurants and hotels fresh tax breaks in an effort to stop the decline, as well as a £2 million plan to bring empty properties back into use.

But Andy Willox of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland warned: “Independent businesses expecting the town-centre cavalry will be waiting a while longer.”

He added that such key issues as parking, planning, traffic management, access and rents had all been “neglected” by the government plans.

He also accused councils of showing “scant regard for the health of our local economies with many choosing brand-new edge-of-town or out-of-town facilities over investment in our centres.”

Mr Willox added: “This report cannot be the end of the story and the small business community is certainly not giving up the fight.

“We would welcome the opportunity to make the case for more ambitious measures to make the Scottish high street fit for the 21st century.”

His comments came after local government minister Derek Mackay launched the plan during a visit to Bank Street, in Kilmarnock, which hit full occupancy in October this year, following the efforts of East Ayrshire Council, local traders groups and businesses.

He pledged the government will work with local government body Cosla to develop a “town centre first” principle across Scotland.

Mr Mackay said: “The Scottish Government is determined that our town centres should be vibrant, attractive and safe places where local people and visitors alike want to spend their time and money.

“They should be accessible places which invite business start-up and inspire innovative ideas from all parts of the community. We welcomed the independent review earlier this year and the crucial role it will play in the regeneration of high streets across Scotland.”

The action plan addresses the recommendations of the National Review of Town Centres published in July which called for action to address the decline of town centres.

Malcolm Fraser, the architect who led the independent town centre review, yesterday backed the government plan to help save the country’s high streets.

“What I think we have here is a change of government mindset: a reversal of the throwaway habit that abandons old towns, with their communities, infrastructure and services, for greenfield sites,” he said.

But Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said the government plan was a collection of “reheated, half-reasonable ideas, mixed in with some banal new suggestions”.

He said: “The Scottish Government talks about a ‘town centre first principle’ at a time when it is shutting police stations the length and breadth of the country.

“This is on top of closing down courts, bringing in punitive empty property tax and abolishing the town centre regeneration fund.”

Green MSP Alison Johnstone said the plan lacked ambition. “The sums set aside are pitiful. We need action now.”