Action is to be taken in a bid to breathe new life into Hawick’s struggling High Street, it has been announced.
A loan support scheme is to be piloted in the town in a bid to encourage owners to divide up large empty business spaces to make them more attractive to potential small business tenants.
The scheme, to be run by Scottish Borders Council, will also offer grants to help small businesses relocate to the new units.
The announcement comes after Scottish Borders Council rejected a move, backed by the Future Hawick group, earlier this year to reduce non-domestic rates for town centre retailers.
The new scheme is being launched after research found that Hawick town centre was the least resilient in the Borders and in need of priority status for help to revive it.
Hawick and Hermitage councillor Ron Smith, executive member for planning and environment at the authority, regarded the rates cut plan as too wide-ranging and believes the loan scheme has a better chance of supporting High Street, hit by a string of closures in recent months.
If the pilot scheme is successful in Hawick, it would be rolled out across the Scottish Borders.
The scheme, to be piloted for a year, will enable property owners to subdivide larger vacant units, making them far more marketable to the smaller, local businesses considered to be those most likely to be looking for high street retail space.
Mr Smith said: “I welcome the high street loan proposal as innovative and focused, answering a specific problem of large and outdated business premises.
“Loans to landlords and grants to new occupiers may help fill shops. This is being constructive.
“The suggestion made by the Future Hawick group was too wide-ranging to be used as a pilot, but this new proposal by Scottish Borders Council shows the matter has, in fact, been given much thought and indeed, if successful, looks as if it could be then extended to other locations.”
But there was a much more cautious response to the plan from the two independent representatives for Hawick and Denholm, Stuart Marshall and Watson McAteer, both of whom supported the rates cut scheme option.
Mr Marshall said: “While this new pilot should not be dismissed outright, we should however bear in mind that Scottish Borders Council has at its the disposal the right to exercise discretion and actually reduce non-domestic rates.
“Unfortunately, they choose not to do so, and I fear that to offer struggling businesses the option to borrow money through these new proposals may well only fuel the debt that some may already find themselves in.”
Mr McAteer added: “I am very disappointed that all of the hard work by Future Hawick has been dismissed out of hand.
“The Scottish Government introduced the non-domestic rates relief option in October 2015 to allow councils much more flexibility in dealing with punitive and unrealistic charges affecting small businesses operating in premises that attract rates charges.
“This council has chosen not to adopt the new procedures and to ignore the option of a local pilot scheme that could have benefited Hawick and other areas of the Borders.
“While I am prepared to give the new loan support scheme a chance, I remain concerned that it may not ultimately decrease costs to businesses – an essential objective if we are to turn around our High Street.
Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, the council’s executive member for economic development, said: “I am hopeful that this scheme will make a discernible difference to Hawick High Street and is something which, if successful, could be rolled out to other town centres across the Scottish Borders.
“The funding for the pilot loan scheme will come from the council’s existing business loan fund, while the funding to support small businesses to let the smaller units will come from the business grant fund.”
The new scheme was agreed at a meeting of the council’s executive committee this week as part of a new rolling three-year town centre action plan for the Borders.
Members agreed that a new town centre resilience index, using key statistics, will be used to establish where the council’s limited resources should be targeted for maximum impact.
Derek Tait, chairman of Hawick Future, also expressed his disappointment at the decision and said loans, even if interest-free, “are a financial burden on owners”.
He added: “I know our rates submission would require further discussion, but it was rejected out of hand.”