Friday, 5 June 2015

Town centres need intensive care to avoid retail oblivion

EWAN LAMB reports

The agencies responsible for economic development, promotion of tourism and regeneration   together with politicians and elected councillors have failed miserably to halt and reverse the alarming decline in so-called footfall in Borders town centres, it has been claimed.

The criticism comes on the back of new statistics which suggest the average weekly number of pedestrians (and therefore potential shoppers) counted in eight regional towns has plummeted by 32% between 2007 and 2014. But according to the report the drastic reductions in Hawick and Melrose last year could have been down to poor weather when the counts were undertaken.

Nevertheless, the 15-page report from Scottish Borders Council - it was posted on the council website this week without comment - must be of serious concern to the region's retailers and for the agencies responsible for economic stability and prosperity.

A prominent member of the Borders retail sector said: "This report should act as a wake up call for the entire region and those attempting to assist with what is becoming a dangerous downward spiral. There have been numerous initiatives, reports and discussions over the last decade, but none of these have brought about an improvement let alone halted a relentless decline."

The figures contained in the report show the average footfall in eight town centres fell from 46,380 per week in 2007 to 31,590 in 2014. Individual totals include Galashiels 9,500 in 2007 down to 7,780 in 2014, a fall of 18%.

Perhaps the most disturbing picture in all of the towns lies in Hawick where concerns have been expressed in recent years about the large proportion of empty retail properties in the central area.  According to the statistics Hawick suffered a massive 61% slump in footfall from 9,680 to 3,750 in just seven years.

But researchers will be hoping the 2014 figure is merely a blip caused by heavy rain when the counting was done. The report says: "Hawick will continue to require close attention going forward".

At the same time Kelso appears to have fared best of all, the 2014 weekly average of 4,980 represented a mere one per cent fall from 2007's 5,050. The supposedly rogue result for Melrose showed a 72% reduction from 3,540 (2007) to 990 (2014).

The retailer contacted by Not Just Sheep & Rugby told us: "Those in authority are probably pinning their hopes on the railway's return to save the day. But unless there is an effective campaign with significant financial backing to attract more people into the Borders there is no guarantee the train will come to the rescue.

"Many community leaders in towns like Hawick, Jedburgh and Duns, which are some distance from the Tweedbank rail head, are not convinced their towns will benefit significantly from the reopening of part of the Waverley Line. The current strategies from tourism promoters and those in charge of economic development are clearly falling short so far as the Borders is concerned. Tinkering with the current range of measures is not going to get us out of this mess - instead we need a major programme of investment."


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