Kirkcaldy town centre: bid to ban 'to let' signs and get landlords to clean up eyesore empty shops

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Empty buildings - eyesores or opportunities? How we approach that question could determine how we re-shape our High Street to make it fit for the future.

Its place as the jewel in the Kingdom’s crown meant it had much further to fall than most towns. Several generations have now grown up hearing of its glory days as the go-to place for shopping.

The town centre of the future will have very little in common with the one which had the buzz of late night shopping as well as busy weekends, and boasted everything you needed for your house and home. Getting there, however, will take time, new thinking - and significant investment.

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Friday saw the launch of Love Oor Lang Toun’s (LOLT) vision document entitled ‘The Future Is Now’ which aims to set out the aspirations that are key to creating a town centre for the 21st century.

To Let signs can be seen across the High Street (pic: Fife Photo Agency)To Let signs can be seen across the High Street (pic: Fife Photo Agency)
To Let signs can be seen across the High Street (pic: Fife Photo Agency)

The document is based on the comments of, and ideas from, over 800 people who have taken part in webinars and surveys over the last two years - and those voices spell out the expectations of the town and the community which could then be adopted into a Local Place Plan which is the framework against which all proposed development should be considered.

It paints a picture of a town centre that still has independent, modern retail at its heart, but opens the scope for much more residential development in the High Street, and finding new, imaginative purposes for its empty buildings. Turning eyesores into opportunities is just one of its goals - but, above all, it wants to create a blueprint that is realistic and chimes with what people want; something many previous strategies have failed to embrace.

Danny Cepok, development manager said: “We have all seen the plans for Kirkcaldy unveiled over the past 15 years - piers with shops on them stretching out to the sea for example, They were unrealistic, and people didn’t feel connected to them. We wanted an approach that was realistic and looked at those key sites as opportunities, not derelict buildings.”

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Kirkcaldy is not unique in trying to find new ways to halt the retail migration from town centres to retail parks and online shopping.

The Love Oor Lang Toun team in the High Street with local businesswoman Amanda Allan (Pic: Cath Ruane)The Love Oor Lang Toun team in the High Street with local businesswoman Amanda Allan (Pic: Cath Ruane)
The Love Oor Lang Toun team in the High Street with local businesswoman Amanda Allan (Pic: Cath Ruane)

“Kirkcaldy was a huge retail centre not just for Fife but the east of Scotland with bus loads of people coming every weekend,” he said. “Our High street is one mile long and it has been end to end retail and cafes for so many years, but we cannot sustain that any more.”

The work done by LOLT since lockdown has led to more people having their say - and understanding the issues facing the town. Many shops are owned by landlords who don’t stay locally, the call for free parking isn't the panacea many feel it could be, and crippling business rates so often blamed on Fife Council are in fact the domain of the Scottish Government. While the local authority was well represented at the launch of the LOLT document, no MSPs were represented - underlining the challenge that comes with tackling that specific barrier.

The charity accepts it is facing a long game to transform Kirkcaldy town centre, so it has set out its goals for the short, medium and long term.

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It is looking for some quick wins to demonstrate things are happening behind the scenes. That may be improving shop fronts which have been boarded up and all but forgotten about, or removing the ‘to let’ signs which pock mark the High Street. It also wants to identify the landlords which don’t look after their empty properties to 'persuade' them to tidy up the dilapidated shopfronts - or let local people roll up their sleeves and do the work.

In the medium term, it wants to bring the old Bodycare shop - one of barely two buildings owned by the council - back into use, as well as working to demolish the ugly, under-used multi-storey carparks to create a huge development opportunity on the waterfront.

Long term could lead to structural changes - imagine green spaces and connectivity between the High Street and Esplanade instead where large empty buildings currently site, and possible links to Edinburgh across the Forth.

“It is a long game,” said Danny. “If we want investment and funding for our town, we have to show that, as a town, we see the way ahead. That is why we created this document. There were no real surprises when we asked people what they wanted. They are keen to retain some level of retail with more independent businesses, they want more living accommodation in the town centre, and what came across was we are a seaside town - why can’t we look like one? If we want a 21st century town centre then it has to look like one. This document gives us a great opportunity to see how we change things, and people are seeing the bigger picture. The Postings demolition, for example, let people see the scope there for residential development - that made them think about how we could use other spaces.”

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Retaining the town’s fine buildings - there is much to admire by looking up from the streetscape - and tackling its eyesores is part of the road ahead. The key is for local community organisations, politicians, and local businesses to work with Fife Council and get behind a unified vision of a new town centre.