Editorial: Unified action now is only way to save Elgin

Sunday Supplement

Our detailed look back on the stories that we have been talking about in Moray…..

The demise and hopes for future regeneration of Elgin’s town centre was far and away the biggest insideMoray story in terms of social media interaction this week.

It is an issue that has been occupying Moray minds for some time and not just in Elgin – town centres throughout the region have saw a rapid footfall decline in recent years, a situation that was happening even before the economic downturn.

It is, however, the plight of our largest town that is the cause of greatest concern (or is it a City – even our local authority seem confused by that given conflicting street signs).

This weekend we revealed how Elgin was to be one of 29 UK towns that was to be given a ‘leg up’ by a consortium of four leading high street businesses.  The plan formed by Marks & Spencer, Boots, the Co-op and Santander is to support Elgin through their Business in the Community (BITC) initiative.

While the news was welcomed by most it was also treated with some scepticism with many feeling it might be too little, too late – and more than a few doubting that the policy makers at Moray Council are capable of steering assistance in the correct direction.

For the most part it would seem that while people have different ideas on why town centre’s have fallen on hard times in the first place, there is a clear will that they can be helped to recover from their ‘charity shop and coffee house’ image.

A comparative example

There are examples elsewhere that town centres can reverse the downward trend. One such is Hucknall in Nottinghamshire, where as far back as 2005 it was recognised that the town had “struggled to maintain the viability of its centre”.

As a result the Hucknall Town Centre Regeneration Board was created with a remit to create a new town centre with “a broad and sustainable economic base which is a desirable place to visit and which can be the focus for community activity and pride”.

Part of their plan was the creation of a town centre improvement scheme that laid out a strategy map for the future. Five years ago progress reached the stage where a ‘masterplan’ was published, looking at each aspect of the town as it was and as it could be.

At that point it recognised the “high level of retail vacancy” in the town, adding that “one of the main problems faced is the limited retail demand due to the small size of most of the available units”.

While people in Elgin point to the development of out-of-town shopping that takes people away from the centre, Hucknall has an even larger problem with the city of Nottingham less than seven miles away – drawing 45% of comparison trade from the town.

It was recognised then that “a strategy needs to be put in place to allow the town centre to profit from the Town Centre Improvement Scheme so that it can become a catalyst for the regeneration of the town.”

The problem then was identified in four key areas that Hucknall lacked – dubbed ‘the four A’s’ – Attractions, Accessibility, Amenity and Action. Anyone living and working around Elgin could perhaps recognise all four as issues being faced by their local town.

Other similarities between Elgin and Hucknall will perhaps not please everyone in the Moray town – the development of a new relief road was deemed essential, as was turning traffic away from the centre. Elgin’s west approach road plans have caused protests while pedestrianisation of the high street is blamed by many as a cause of the problem, not a solution to it

Hucknall’s planners recognised the opposition to their own proposals: “…the relief road is potentially both an opportunity and a threat. The masterplanning options for the relief road look to overcome this threat by integrating the road into the town centre with frontage development and high quality links to the pedestrianised High Street.”

Years of debate finally ended when the main items in the Hucknall masterplan were agreed last year with the new road and pedestrianisation due to be completed by 2016.

More recently, the positive vibes for the town were already seen to be producing results with three new businesses opening up in the high street and another three moving to larger premises.

Lessons learned?

So are there lessons to be learned in Elgin from the Hucknall example? Possibly – but critics of Elgin’s pedestrianisation will continue to warn their English counterparts that it has not worked here, while those against the west approach road will insist that the jury is still very much out on if it will make the difference claimed by Moray planners.

What remains clear is that some sort of action does need to be taken with more help being provided to and through Elgin BID, who have striven admirably against the tide in recent years.

The selection of Elgin for assistance by BITC has to be warmly welcomed although it remains to be seen what that will consist of as currently the proposals are full of admirable words but little in terms of financial substance.

At the end of the day what will make or break Elgin and every town centre in Moray is real people taking individual and collective stances over the future of our immediate environment.

It is after all people who are showing a preference in droves to support out of town shopping over their local options.  What is perhaps clear is that only through unified action taken now can Elgin and every other town centre in Moray be saved from a bleak future.

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