When Stranraer bid a final farewell to Belfast-bound ferries in 2011, its economy was hit hard. Having operated since the 1860s, the route’s closure marked the end of an era for the Wigtownshire town and it soon struggled to keep shops open and the centre busy.
Like many historic towns across Scotland, however, it is being revitalised through Historic Environment Scotland’s (HES) Community Area Regeneration Scheme (CARS).
Launched in 2007, CARS is a funding programme that is regenerating historic towns and maximising their economies.
Since it was established, more than £43 million in funding from the Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland (and its predecessors Historic Scotland with the Royal Commission on the
Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) has been awarded to 61 communities across the country.
Thomas Knowles, head of grants at HES, says: “When we looked at our previous grants programme we saw that we were really good at doing individual projects.
“[The project] would be really wonderful, but then we’d start looking around the area and see that it’s still run-down and still degenerated.”
“We started looking at an area-based programme and thought that if we are going to invest in something then maybe we should be looking beyond a single building.
“CARS meant that we could build up a funding package and have the opportunity to make a real difference.
“We need a lot of money to make it work, which is why the projects tend to be large-scale and last for about five years.”
Funding is provided to councils, community groups and other voluntary sector organisations for area-based regeneration and conservation initiatives.
CARS grants also inspire funding from other sources to be put towards projects and, over the last decade, the initiative has generated £300m from other investors, according to Knowles.
“It’s a cumulative idea where a bit of money from us enables some from others and these things build up quite considerably.”
Towns like Stranraer have a historic core, evident from the buildings and winding cobbled streets.
In the past, town centres were the beating heart of the community, but as a result of the unstoppable rise of internet shopping and city dominance, people have moved away.
Knowles, who has academic qualifications in finance, urban conservation and defence, believes that has led to many of the current problems in town centres.
“The shopfronts look shabby, the roofs start to leak and people don’t want to invest in the properties because there’s no economic benefit for them to do so.
“CARS helps to offset some of those problems by offering public funding to get the building stock back up to scratch so that new businesses can open.”
He says there are a number of studies that suggest people have a strong interest in shopping in traditional town centres, as opposed to identikit shops.
That means there is an economic driver for regenerating towns and opening businesses.
One town that has benefited from a need for retail is Kirkwall in Orkney, which received a £1.2m grant from HES.
The initiative helped Orkney Islands Council deal with the massive increase in visitor numbers as a result of the cruise ships that are visiting Kirkwall, but at first the shops weren’t up to scratch.
“The town had empty shopfronts and missed opportunities, so they had been doing this programme of shopfront repairs and there are now no empty shopfronts in Kirkwall.
“It is fantastic as they have all come back into use,” says Knowles.
In addition, funding goes to education for children through HES’s schools activity programme in support of the Curriculum for Excellence and the school visits subsidy, which helps cover the cost of transport to heritage sites.
Funding also goes towards adult learning courses such as apprenticeships in plumbing, joinery, stonemasonry and painting, as well as a week-long conservation summer school, which is an introduction to traditional building materials.
Knowles says: “We want to really try to use local tradespeople but they might not have the skill set that is required to work on traditional buildings.
“So part of our funding is that we can offer training. If you are a joiner we will show you how to do sash and case windows and if you are a roofer we will show you how to work with the grades of lead that are appropriate for historical buildings.”
The schemes are multifaceted and not just about improving a significant building – they enable people in those towns to do the work and take ownership of their projects to maximise their economic potential.
The projects let the townspeople work with their local authority to decide how best to improve their town centre and make it become the heart of the community once again.
This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.