A bright future - and two key challenges

Ross Martin
Ross Martin

SUMMER 2012 and the Town House is buzzing with activity. The Council chamber, so often a place of sterile debate, came to life as the chairs and tables were removed, and people talked and shared ideas as they moved around the room.

There was just one item on the agenda - the future of our town centre - and what came across was the very strong desire of all concerned to roll up their sleeves, to get involved in the discussions, and to make things happen.

Kirkcaldy High Street

Kirkcaldy High Street

The desire among business owners and retailers to influence change and to commit their time, effort and skills remains as strong as ever, and the debate about our town’s future goes on.

It now has a platform under Kirkcaldy’s Ambitions, launched last week, and it has a summer of major events which many hope will demonstrate the town’s true potential to a much wider audience.

But where does Kirkcaldy sit in comparison with other Scottish towns?

And what is the outside view of a town that was regarded by many as the jewel in Fife’s retail crown just a generation ago?

Ross Martin is policy director for the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) - Scotland’s only independent, membership-based cross-party think tank.

A renaissance of our town centres is one of its key goals as it influences opinion and challenges our political leaders to do more - and do better.

He has also worked closely with many BID companies across Scotland, including Kirkcaldy4All, and is well placed to give a different perspective in the Lang Toun.

His view is quite simple - our town centre has a very bright future.

‘‘Kirkcaldy presents a positive, clean and smiling face to the world,’’ he said. ‘‘It is a lot, lot better than it used to be - it’s certainly changed since the last time I got kicked out of Jackie O!’’

Does it - and other town centres - have a future?

‘‘Absolutely. The moment for towns has arrived again.’’

Ross believes the work going on behind the scenes in Kirkcaldy - the creation of Kirkcaldy’s Ambitions, the links between Kirkcaldy4All and the Council, the emergence of Adam Smith Global Foundation and the town centre summit to name but a few - holds the key to not only regenerating this town, but others as well.

‘‘Every town in Scotland needs to do what Kirkcaldy is doing and have a fundamental look at its role and fuction,’’ he said. ‘‘Take a step back and think about what your town centre is for - get businesse involved, get the private sector involved, and get the public sector involved, but don’t let it dominate.

‘‘Get together and have a fundamental discussion about the purpose of the place. Until now towns have developed on an adhoc basis; a planning application, and roads decision, an individual idea. We need to join it all up.

‘‘We need to look at the whole picture - look at the town’s assets and its footprints, work out who owns what, and what we can do with them.

‘‘What, for example, does the Council own - and what could it hand over to the BID to generate mnore benefits for the town?

‘‘Parking? Or could it take on street lighting and use renewable energies? How about a wind turbine to generate income? You’ve got plenty wind coming off the sea in Kirkcaldy ...!’’

The big picture also drills down to how people view the town centre and what it offers them.

‘‘We have to look at how attractive a town centre is to people - it’s all about people,’’ he said.

‘‘Is it a nice place for old folk to spend time chatting and having a cuppa? Is it also attractive to young people who want different things - people coming out from school and college?

‘‘Is it accessible to people with disabilities, and what about young families - does it attract them at weekends?

‘‘Once you look at that then you have to look at what you can do to improve the picture.

‘‘It could be better signage, maybe more events or better PR about the town. It could be a loyalty card with discounts here and there.

‘‘There are many, many great ideas out there already - steal them! See what works and how it can then work for you.

‘‘During the Enlightenment Kirkcaldy exported ideas to the world. Now it is time to take some of those ideas back.’’

And in looking at what is happening around the country, Ross believes Kirkcaldy can then tackle it’s two big issues - ‘‘game changers which have to be addressed -and thery are painful.’’

One is the waterfront, and the other is the length of the High Street

‘‘Why turn your back on your waterfront?’’ he challenged. ‘‘Learn the lessons of towns and cities around the world where there are new and ambitious ideas based around quaysides and waterfronts.

‘‘Inverness is completely revamping its town to take advantage of the magnificent River Ness. Look at Dundee - it has undergone an incredible transformation.

‘‘But Kirkcaldy is standing with its back to the water...’’

And the famous mile-long Lang Toun faces an equally challenging discussion.

‘‘Kirkcaldy is a classic, old style Scottish High Street - it’s too long so all the activity is spread too far. At some point people need to sit down and do an exercise to determine how to re-shape it and concentrate that activity in a smaller area, and as you do that, you then have to look at the ‘extremities’ and work out what their role is. ‘‘

He believes the BID is key to the town’s future - ‘‘it has done a tremendous job’’ - and that there is much to be positive about despite all the challenges it faces.

The Scottish Government’s town centre review publishes at the end of this month and will shape the debate once more, but, more importantly, it will also put the issue high on the political agenda, with a message to start talking to the people who matter most - those with the interests of their towns at heart.