Last night I presented at a meeting held by the Provost and Convenor of Falkirk Council to allow businesses in the town to voice their opinion of the town and to give suggestions as to what can be done to improve the town centre’s performance. Falkirk is not unique in wanting to address the issues in its town centre and many places in Scotland are embarking on a similar journey. This event was the first step in engaging with developing a new future for Falkirk town centre.
So why was I there? I had been invited to set the scene about how retail is doing in Scotland and what some of the challenges might be. I guess the idea was 20 minutes of academic rambling by me, followed by the more traditional sport of blood-letting and venting at the Council. Well, it succeeded. Well over a 100 people politely listened to me and then spent the next hour blaming the Council for everything possible. They may have a point, but equally the Council is not omnipotent. Only towards the end did the blood sport stop and voices began to debate what could be done.
And it is that combination of frustration and enthusiasm about and for a place that is so exciting. These 100 or so people care, and care deeply, about their town and their place. Yes, some are motivated by concern about their business, but then so would I be, and what’s wrong with that. They want better, and they want help to do better, and they want to be involved in a better Falkirk – and that’s a great thing.
So a night of complaints, frustration, passion, enthusiasm, and a commitment from many to work together in sorting out the issues as best they can.
Once I had said my piece I did not get an opportunity to sum up the discussion, so thought I would reflect on some things here:
There is a real misunderstanding of what local authorities are responsible for and where they can and can not do things. The Council does not set the rates or the valuation and all the money collected does not go in to the local council. Rates poundage and valuation (or more problematically the non-revaluation) are Scottish Government concerns. And given the manifesto commitment revaluation is off the table for a few years – which helps no-one. Likewise local authorities are not able to offer deals to retailers to take units where they do not own them – unlike managed shopping centres there is really little control.
So what can local authorities do?
One of the common themes in the complaints and the discussion was really about access. Access to the town, through streets, to shops and digital access. The council can do more to make this attractive and easy and to open up places for people.
They also have say over some of the car parking, both in terms of where the parking is, and the cost of parking. Looking at re-thinking how we move people in and out of places and the cost to them seems a sensible reconsideration – and is linked to the access point.
They can also in some small way look at what incentives they can give to existing businesses in the town centre and to encourage new developments/openings. Is there space available that can be opened up cheaply?
They also have to answer the question of why people would bother to come to your town centre? What is great about Falkirk? Why should I visit? What will I find there? How do I find out about it? And how does it compare to my rivals? Councils can do more to provide a coherence to a place and its image and promotion, maximizing for visitors what is often taken for granted by locals.
And in the medium term they need to make sure that if the town centre is a priority for the area then this is followed by actions. What does supporting your town centre mean? What proportion of spend is then directed by them to the town centre? Where do they locate their facilities? How do they react to shiny new proposals outside this supposedly favoured area? And how do they tap the undoubted enthusiasm and entrepreneurship in a place – it is not a shortage of ideas we have, but a shortage of opportunity.
As last night showed, being on the Council is not an easy task, and they too share some of the frustrations of the business sector. But then being in business and retailing at this time is no picnic either. By coming together and exploring what divides and what unites the various groups however, maybe the first small steps towards a better town centre have already been made.
If anyone cares what I presented it can be found in the download section of this blog.