Colin Smyth MSP
Colin Smyth MSP

We must take “urgent action” in order save our town centres, according to South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth.

The local MSP also once again highlighted Dumfries and the excellent work of the Midsteeple Quarter during a speech in the Scottish Parliament.

Last year a report the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee, which Colin Smyth sits on, undertook an inquiry into town centre regeneration.

The committee concluded that every town in Scotland should have their own Town Plan, a long-term strategic vision for the future that recognises and builds on the unique nature of our towns, their histories and the community that brings them together.

As part of the work, MSPs on the committee visited the Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries, and heard about the need for a grassroots-up approach, that ownership matters, particularly ownership by those with a stake in the town centre, the importance of housing, and the financial barriers and higher costs when developing town centre sites.

Speaking in a debate on town centres in the chamber on Tuesday, Colin Smyth said: “In 50 years, no one will look back at a historical photo of an out-of-town development, and no one will ever reminisce about which supermarket was in a development before the current one, whereas we look back on the shops, theatres, cinemas and homes that once brought us together but are so often now lost to our high streets.

“If we do not take urgent action soon, there will be even less to bring us together, never mind look back on.

“That does not mean that our town centres do not need to change. They are already changing. However, we need to do far more to support them in that change.

“Retail will be crucial. It has changed. It has reduced in our town centres. However, the Scottish Retail Consortium reminded us that retail still employs 233,000 people in Scotland and contributes £5.8 billion to the economy.

“If we want to better protect our town centres, the time for tinkering at the edges is over. That is why I supported the calls that were made to our inquiry for a moratorium on out-of-town developments where there is space and opportunity to develop in a nearby town centre setting. We simply should not allow out-of-town warehouses that offer the same products that can be—or, in some cases, already are—available on nearby high streets.

“If there is not to be a moratorium, we need to see, at the very least, a meaningful town centre first approach.”

Colin Smyth continued: “Dumfries is where I was born, where I have always lived and where I bring up my family, and it has been heartbreaking to see the decline in the town centre over the years.

“The town centre really matters to me and to all my fellow Doonhamers, just as it was clear, throughout the committee’s inquiry, that town centres really matter to residents in communities right across Scotland. That is because their value is more than the sum of their parts. They are convenient places in which to access services, shops, jobs, entertainment and places to live.

“However, they are more than that. They are part of the very fabric of our communities: our history, our culture and our sense of place. They are about who we are as a community. That means that the focus, the investment and the protection that they receive should go beyond the strict economic value that is placed on them.

“Every town is unique, with its own challenges and, therefore, its own unique solutions. In many ways, however, Dumfries is a microcosm of town centres across Scotland. It has been hit by the impact of out-of-town developments, online shopping and easy access to cities, and the consequence has been more and more empty shops. However, our visit gave members a glimmer of hope, due to the way in which the community is fighting back.

“Just as our visit to Hamilton provided the opportunity to meet members of Hamilton Our Town Business Improvement District and hear about their excellent community-led work in supporting town centre businesses, the visit that members made to Dumfries gave them the opportunity to meet people from Midsteeple Quarter, which is a community benefit company that is directly tackling the problem of absent landlords by becoming the landlord itself.

“Shop by shop, it is taking back the high street and investing in neglected properties to deliver the uses that the town has identified that it needs—affordable retail space, community space and, crucially, new housing in our high street.

“That journey was hampered and made slower by the lack of revenue support as that work became established. That is why the committee urged the Government to consider the need for seed funding for community-led projects that really listen to communities and drive regeneration forward.”

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