SOCIAL Justice Secretary Alex Neil has pledged £1.7 million of funding to help inject new life into Scotland’s run-down town centres.

He told The National in an exclusive interview that “town centres are by no means dead, there is a future for them but we’ve got to work at it together”.

Neil’s vision for 21st century town centres is based on European café culture.

He said: “Our strategy is to get more folk to live in the town centre, improve the quality of the retail offering, make a place where people go for their entertainment and leisure – basically, developing a Scottish version of European café culture.

“To that end we have a number of funds that are helping, even with the limited resources we’ve got.

“A couple of weeks ago we announced a £4m town centre fund for empty property, to convert them into more housing, we have just announced the £1.7m community capital projects fund and that is providing grants of up to £150,000 for third-sector organisations.

“This will provide a grant towards development for setting up a new service or taking over a building to provide leisure or fitness.

“On top of all of that we have now passed the Community Empowerment Act and that gives local groups the power, also in town centres, to take over disused council property for example.”

The Town Centre Communities Capital Fund is open to community organisations to support capital projects that will make real and lasting improvements to town centres.

Neil made the funding announcement while on a visit to the Beith Development Trust in North Ayrshire yesterday.

He said: “There are already a few examples of communities getting involved in their town centres, introducing innovation and helping to reclaim them as vibrant social spaces.

“The Scottish Government recognises that people across Scotland are interested in the future of their town centres. This £1.7m through the Town Centre Communities Capital Fund is intended to support enterprising communities with project proposals that complement our Town Centre Action Plan.

“By enabling and supporting enterprising community organisations to take action, we can help make town centres attractive and accessible places that are the thriving civic spaces we know they can be.”

He said it was up to local communities to take advantage of the grants and their new rights under the Community Empowerment Bill to embrace their town centres.

However, he said that the Government was also being pro-active in supporting communities.

Several examples include offering to help pay for a feasibility study for town centres in Ayr and Cupar in Fife.

Neil said: “I was up in Cupar last week and their sheriff court has just closed and is lying empty, so some of the things we were suggesting to them is to use the new act to set up a development trust to take over that building and help regenerate the town centre.

“It is up to the communities to embrace all of this and we are here to support them all the way.

“We have been very pro-active and, for example, we have been working with South Ayrshire Council where we’ve agreed to pay towards a feasibility study to look at how the high street in Ayr can be renovated and improved.

“I made the same offer to the people in Cupar that we would help fund a feasibility study on how we can help them regenerate their town centre.

“For a number of years now, town centres have suffered major problems because of the out-of-town retailing and more recently from the internet. In fact, the British Retail Consortium’s recent figures show a continuing drop in footfall, both in the town centres and in the out-of-town centres because of the internet.”

One example of how local communities can get involved to regenerate their town centres is the Beith Development Fund.

The Fund’s development manager Jane Lamont said: “At Beith Trust we work alongside local people to provide opportunities for learning, skills development and personal growth, which enable people to step up as makers and shapers within their community rather than simply exist as users and choosers of services designed by external consultants.

“We believe in making things happen in town centres and in communities incrementally building up to bigger projects that can then help to transform the community.

“As well as our sports offer, we are now based on the high street in Beith, which enables more people to connect with the different services that the trust offers. Being visible and joined up is key to the success of any community-based organisation.”

For information and to apply for the Town Centre Communities Capital Fund visit gov.scot/Topics/Built-Environment/regeneration/town-centres/tcccf.

SOURCE: The National

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