Falkirk Council ‘must halt decline’ of town centre - Howgate boss

Howgate Shopping Centre general manager Suzanne Arkinson.
Howgate Shopping Centre general manager Suzanne Arkinson.
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Howgate Shopping Centre general manager Suzanne Arkinson has made an impassioned plea for Falkirk Council to move into the town centre and open an arts hub.

In comments made even before the latest two body blows to the local retail scene she said without that level of investment the heart of Falkirk would continue to decline.

Falkirk independent trader Lauren Brown.

Falkirk independent trader Lauren Brown.

The Howgate chief’s plea follows an ongoing council wrangle over deadlocked SNP-led plans that aimed to revitalise the under-pressure centre of town.

Following the collapse of Watt Brothers and then Bonmarche (still trading, pending a rescue bid), numerous social media comments today repeat the now common view that “there will soon be no shops left”.

If ever approved the HQ-and-arts plan would see Falkirk Council headquarters move to the town centre along with the opening of a community arts hub.

However it has been dismissed by Labour as a vanity project that cannot be justified amid so many other existing spending priorities.

The closure of Watt Brothers from the Howgate was closely followed by Bonmarche in High Street going into administration - although it remains open and may yet be saved.

The closure of Watt Brothers from the Howgate was closely followed by Bonmarche in High Street going into administration - although it remains open and may yet be saved.

Ms Arkinson argues this is false logic, and says action must be taken to prevent a further slide into empty shopping units and the waste, as she sees it, of “a real opportunity”.

Last month the Labour Group blocked what SNP supporters of the plan see as a way of unlocking the potential of a town centre which patently can no longer rely on main brand retail stores to woo visitors and revenue.

Labour Group leader Councillor Robert Bissett said: “At a time when they are cutting money for our schools, children’s clubs, bus services, community groups, care of the elderly and vulnerable, waste collection, community safety, poverty alleviation and leisure and recreational facilities...Labour cannot, and will not, accept the spending of an estimated £45m plus on one site in the centre of Falkirk.

“If there is £45 million available for spending then I, along with every other resident in the Falkirk council area, could come up with a long list of priorities before a new council headquarters and arts centre.”

Beyond this economic argument, however, SNP supporters of the scheme were incensed that Labour members had dubbed the project “Cecil’s Castle” - alluding to council leader Cecil Meiklejohn.

Labour members have in turn been accused of reneging on their earlier backing of the idea, and of now refusing it while failing to come forward with any alternative.

This week Suzanne Arkinson, even before the loss of Watt Brothers, urged a rethink.

She said: “Without investment the town will continue to decline, and we have a real opportunity to invest here in the town centre.

“If the council don’t lead this investment nobody else will come in and invest.

“The most frustrating thing for me is the mistruth being told about where the money is coming from - it would be low cost borrowing for investment. It is ‘capital budget’.

“Everyone keeps going on about schoolchildren’s meals, emptying bins and care for the elderly - this money cannot be used for that.

“People need to stop using that as an emotional hook to bait the public.

“It makes more sense in the long run to do something that’s positive for the future”.

Her comments are backed by Lauren Brown, the independent entrepreneur behind town centre venture Sisters Boutique and its recently-launched next-door neighbour Misters.

“From my point of view it’s a no brainer for Falkirk Council to relocate to Falkirk town centre”, she said.

“It was originally a fantastic place to come to visit.”

She added: “Falkirk is developing at a phenomenal rate just now - we’ve the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel, and these things have all had loads of investment.

“The only thing letting the area down is the town centre”.