Monday, 6 February 2017

Only crumbs for struggling Borders towns

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD argues that a 10-year capital investment programme seems to be out of step with a Borders town centre index.

Galashiels and its immediate hinterland is set to receive the lion's share of capital investment by Scottish Borders Council over the next ten years while other towns with serious economic issues and poor retail activity seem unlikely to benefit much from a newly published expenditure programme.

Many of the projects and items included in a £217 million draft capital financial plan covering the period between 2017 and 2027 are not specific to individual population centres. But those schemes which are earmarked for particular towns demonstrate an extremely heavy concentration of resources in and around the railway communities of Galashiels and Tweedbank.

Yet only a week ago councillors were presented with worrying data in the form of a so-called Borders Town Matrix/index which shows how far Jedburgh and Hawick are lagging behind neighbouring settlements when it comes to economic prosperity.

A list of 17 measures including town centre footfall, vacant retail units and various other factors provided scope for a score of up to 170 for each of the region's centres of population. It was Hawick and Jedburgh which shared the lowest mark of 56, classifying the two towns with a rank of 1, indicating the greatest potential need for attention. Prosperous Peebles with a score of 133 stands at the other end of the spectrum, enjoying a ranking of 10.

According to the matrix, Hawick suffered a 42% drop in footfall between 2012 and 2015. This meant the average number of people in the town centre on particular days when counts were made fell from 7,480 to 4,360. In the same time frame Jedburgh's footfall reduced from 2,900 to 2,460 (15%).

Meanwhile Galashiels experienced a modest two per cent reduction from 8,380 to 8,180, a loss which may well have been reversed in 2016 following the return of the Borders railway in September 2015. Kelso clocked up a 27% rise in footfall from 2012 to 2015, up from 4,360 to 5,550.

The data would suggest a sizeable increase in capital investment should be on the cards for Hawick and Jedburgh. But the council's capital plan offers few crumbs of comfort for these two economically beleaguered places.

The only specific mention for Jedburgh is for a proposed synthetic sports pitch costing an estimated £1.28 million. There does not appear to be any significant spend planned for economic expansion or regeneration. And critics of the "less than fit for purpose" Jedburgh secondary school buildings will be disappointed not to see a replacement school included in the 10-year plan.

Perhaps the same could be said for Hawick where the council's £7.73 million flood protection scheme for the town together with a final £101,000 for the redevelopment of Wilton Lodge Park provide the only local entries in the lengthy ledger of expenditure plans.

At the same time it is possible to identify some £29 million of new money for Galashiels and its satellite of Tweedbank. The programme includes £7.95 million for inner relief road phases, £5.7 million for a waste transfer station (which will provide or safeguard jobs) at Easter Langlee, a new Langlee Primary School (£2.93 million), the proposed Great Tapestry of Scotland museum (£6.56 million including the council's contribution of £3.36 million) and a Central Borders Business Park at Tweedbank costing £6 million.

There is a widely held view among Jedburgh and Hawick residents that their respective towns are not receiving a fair share of the local government financial cake. Whether that view is fair or misconceived is a matter for debate; but on all of the available evidence there is certainly a case to answer.

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