Town centres in Fife could benefit from a new project that is designed to breathe life back into its many empty shops.
Fife Council has unveiled a package of support to tackle the long-standing problem of business rates which have been a significant major barrier to new retailers moving in.
Traders and business organisations have been calling for years for more help, and now it is coming in the shape of two pilot projects which should launch in the near future.
Business eyeing up large empty shops with a rateable value above £65,000 – and that would take in units such as BHS and Tesco in Kirkcaldy – could see their rates reduced.
And companies which want to break up empty units with a rateable value over £50,000 to create several smaller shops can also look for help from the local authority.
That’s a new development which may key be to filling some of the empty spaces in the High Street.
The projects aren’t just for retail either.
Buildings which once were home to established supermarkets and big High Street names could easily become home to new leisure facilities.
The proposals were put before the council’s economy, tourism, strategic planning and transportation committee last week. The next stage is to create a blueprint and finalise a start date.
And with the council’s priority for investment focussing very much on central Fife, hopes are high that Kirkcaldy will reap the benefits.
The town’s High Street has undergone a sea-change over the last generation as shopping habits have changed, first to out of town retail parks and then online.
Where it was once a mecca for shoppers, it now has to re-invent itself and tap into a more diverse base of leisure outlets, cafes, independent retailers, and develop a strong night-time economy.
A £500,000 pot of cash was put in place last year for organisations such as community groups, Kirkcaldy4All and trade associations to go to with any projects for physical improvements.
Now the thorny issue of tackling business rates is firmly on the table.
Three years ago, the Scottish Government gave local authorities the power to cut business rates, but left them accountable for any shortfall at a time officers were trying to manage major budget cuts.
Last year, the Barclay Report issued its assessment of business rates which only added to the ‘’confusion’’ over who paid what.
While some businesses won handsome reductions, others – notably people in the pub trade – were left shaking their heads as their bills went up.
The call for more flexibility at local level partly lies behind the new initiative.
The initial aim is to fill the empty shops which blight the landscape.
Robin Presswood, Council head of economy, planning and employability, told the committee: ‘‘ There are a small number of large, persistently vacant, town centre properties that, if funded, could support town centre regeneration with new uses.’’
He said that without this investment, moves to ensure town centres remain vital hubs of the community would ‘‘continue to be severely undermined.’’
The options came out of a detailed paper which had input from key town centre organisations such as BID teams, Kirkcaldy4All and Dunfermline Delivers.