Fewer shoppers visiting town centre stores will inevitably lead to shop closures and a struggling high street.
That much is true in Falkirk, however, it’s far from the only UK town to feel the effects of changing consumer habits in the 21st century.
Last month, of the 95 shopping units which line High Street, a total of 20 lay empty. To compound matters, last week women’s fashion chain Bonmarché went into administration while Watt Brothers in The Howgate closed for good.
The rate at which shops are shutting means there’s a pressing need to arrest the decline. It’s why Falkirk Council devised “transformational” plans in 2018 to create a new local authority headquarters and arts centre in the heart of the town, with the intention of enticing more people into spending time, and money, in an area which has been hit hard.
As councillors prepare to vote on the make-up of the proposed zero-carbon HQ and arts facility next Tuesday, there is hope the £45 million project, which includes proposals for new town centre walkways and cycle routes, could signal an upturn in fortunes.
Council bosses and planners have long known changes would have to be made to halt the slide and improve the prospects of Falkirk’s High Street.
As spelled out in its Falkirk Town Centre Action Plan, those alterations reflect a move away from focusing almost entirely on retail to considering alternative uses for vacant stores, such as residential accommodation.
Town residents will be consulted throughout the process and Falkirk Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn is eager for those who live in the area to play their part.
She said: “What we’re planning is something that will be transformational and we want people to be involved in that because it’s their town.
“We are not going to get the big-time shops back in Falkirk. Retail has changed and the ways people shop have changed so much in the last 20 years that we have to accept large retail isn’t going to happen and look at the alternatives.
“The new HQ and arts centre has to be affordable, therefore we’re looking at the size of the office accommodation compared to the arts centre. We looked to develop a vision about what the town centre could be and get people living there, looking at student accommodation, hotels and our health and social care facilities and whether these could be delivered from our town centre. While we have a lot of empty shops, some have been empty for a long time and are in need of redevelopment. There is interest but retailers are waiting to see what happens with the procurement process and the site for the HQ and arts centre.”
An independent CACI study placed Falkirk in the top five per cent of Scottish retail centres, with a total spend potential of around £892 million, accounting for a wider catchment area comprising a population of 400,000.
Getting people to walk the length of the high street is therefore a critical consideration for the council. With that in mind, green multi-mode routes will be developed in the heart of the town to ensure residents, visitors and council employees are pacing its pavements more frequently.
Councillor Meiklejohn explained: “One of the key things the retailers told us is where the council building is just now means they don’t get the footfall. We’re planning to create sensible walking routes to encourage people into the retail areas.
“Ultimately, it’s the arts centre that’s going to attract others outside of Falkirk to come. That should then create retail demand and demand from the hospitality industry. The vision is a building that’ll be open from 8am until 10pm and later at weekends with a wide variety of uses, offering different types of art, cultural and heritage activities.”