The Scottish Borders Local Development Plan 2016 (LDP) supports a wide range of uses appropriate to town centres in Duns, Eyemouth, Galashiels, Hawick, Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose, Peebles and Selkirk. However, in order to protect the vitality and viability of the ‘Core Activity Areas’ of these town centres, policy ED4 of the LDP restricts acceptable uses in these areas to Class 1 (shops) and Class 3 (food and drink establishments) of the Use Classes Order. Proposals for uses within Class 2 (financial, professional and other services) of the Use Classes Order are only acceptable where they contribute positively to the core retail activity of the area and are assessed against the following criteria:
- How the proposed use would contribute to joint shopping trips;
- Footfall contribution;
- Current vacancy and footfall rates;
- Longevity of vacancy;
- Marketing history of premises; and
- Ability to retain shop frontage.
Policy ED4 also indicates that decision making on what uses are acceptable will be guided by research or studies on vitality and viability by the council or developers.
Only a relatively small part of the region’s town centres are identified as ‘Core Activity Areas’ (CAA). For instance, in Galashiels, the CAA is limited to the frontages of Bank Street (from Bank Street Brae to Cornmill Square), the west side of Market Street between Cornmill Square and Overhaugh Street, both sides of Channel Street between Park Street and the Market Square, and the Douglas Bridge development. Channel Street west of Park Street, the whole of High Street and Island Street, lie outwith the Galashiels CAA and there are no such restrictions on proposed uses in these streets. In Hawick, only the frontages of High Street between Cross Wynd and Baker Street are identified within the CAA. The High Street south of Cross Wynd, Bourtree Place, North Bridge Street, the Sandbed, Tower Knowe/Silver Street, Howegate and Commercial Road all lie outwith the Hawick CAA and there are no such restrictions on proposed uses in these streets.
At present, the CAA policy allows uses such as shops, hairdressers, travel agents, dry cleaners and laundrettes, restaurants, cafes, snack bars, public houses and even car sales on the identified frontages. Uses such as betting offices, beauticians, nail salons, tattooists, estate agents, photographic studios, dog groomers, vets, dental surgeries, solicitors, accountants, financial/mortgage advisors and other professional services are only acceptable where they contribute positively to the core retail activity of the area. Some of these uses do exist in the core activity areas of the Border towns, however, for they were in existence before the policy was first devised in the 1970s and 1980s, and some of these uses have been allowed where the council considered that the proposal would contribute positively to the core retail activity of the area. For instance, in April, 2018, the Local Review Body reversed the decision of the Chief Planning Officer to refuse planning permission for a change of use from retail to dog grooming practice of 38 Bank Street, Galashiels, which is within the CAA, and granted planning permission on the grounds that the proposed use would contribute positively to the core retail activity of the area. Earlier this month, planning permission was granted for a change of use from retail to dog grooming salon at 9A Bank Street, Galashiels which, although located on Bank Street, lies outwith the Galashiels CAA. On the other hand, planning permission was refused in May 2018 for the change of use of a retail unit to a tattoo studio at 52 Bank Street, Galashiels, within the CAA. The change of use of retail units at Douglas Bridge to a Job Centre was approved in November 2017 on appeal by a Scottish Government Reporter, who considered that the proposed use, although not as desirable as a retail use, would make a positive contribution to the core retail function of the CAA.
In Hawick, planning permission was granted in August 2017 for the change of use of 52 High Street, which is within the Hawick CAA, from retail to coffee shop. Planning permission was granted in April 2018 for the change of use of 53 High Street, Hawick, which is also within the Hawick CAA, from retail to form a restaurant with takeaway. Outwith the CAA, planning permission was granted in January 2017 for the change of use of 34 North Bridge Street from office to dog grooming parlour. No planning applications for such uses in the Hawick CAA have been refused in recent years.
There is, quite clearly, a measure of flexibility in the present policy that enables the council to allow a variety of non-retail uses within Core Activity Areas, each proposal being considered on its merits against the criteria set out in policy ED4 of the LDP. However, following a study by the Planning Department to examine ways to revitalise and re-invigorate the town centres of Galashiels and Hawick, the Planning and Building Standards Committee at its meeting on 16 July 2018 agreed to the removal of the restrictions imposed by the CAA designation in Hawick and to a relaxation in the way CAA policy is implemented in Galashiels for a trial period of one year. It is also proposed that, within Galashiels town centre, the requirement for developer contributions to affordable housing and education provision would be temporarily removed for one year. Contributions to the Borders Railway must remain as they are a statutory requirement. There would, however, be a general presumption in Hawick and Galashiels against anti-social uses within these town centres which may have detrimental impacts on the amenity of residential property and other uses.
To be more specific, proposals in the Hawick CAA will simply be tested against LDP policy ED3, which allows a mix of uses in town centres. Proposed changes of use from retail to a range of financial and professional office uses and other service uses, such as a betting office, beauticians, dog groomers and tattooists will not need to be assessed against the criteria in policy ED4, such as footfall contribution and longevity of vacancy. In Galashiels CAA, these proposed changes of use will continue to be assessed against the criteria in policy ED4. Potential uses identified in the report prepared by the Planning Department that could, however, be considered more favourably are: betting office, beautician, nail salon, estate agent, dog groomers and tattooists. The report also sets out further guidance in relation to two of the criteria listed in policy ED4; the judging of applications in terms of the longevity of vacancy and the marketing history of the premises, which should be taken into account when assessing proposals within the Core Activity Areas of Galashiels and the other identified towns in the Borders. The report also indicates that in assessing the contribution that a proposed use makes to the Core Activity Area, the economic benefits of the proposal, the footfall it is likely to generate and how active the proposed frontage is, would be taken into account.
These relaxations have been welcomed but only time will tell whether the changes proposed will have any significant effect on the vibrancy and vitality of Galashiels and Hawick town centres. It will be interesting to see how many proposals for the change of use of retail premises to other uses come forward in the Galashiels and Hawick Core Activity Areas within the next year and whether there is any significant change in footfall or a reduction in vacancy rates as a result. I look forward to seeing the report back at the end of the trial period.