Jan 24 2013 by Gary Fanning, Hamilton Advertiser
The decline of Hamilton shopping centre was the hot topic on Friday lunchtime when Brian’s Big Debate came to town.
BBC Scotland’s answer to Question Time, chaired by their political editor Brian Taylor, was broadcast live before 80 people from Low Parks Museum.
And among the topics discussed were the hostage crisis in Algeria, whether the UK government should hold a referendum on EU membership and the decision by supermarkets to withdraw burgers containing horse meat from their shelves, as well as the problems in local town centres.
On the panel for the 60-minute programme were MSPs Christina McKelvie, Margaret Mitchell and Mark Griffin, along with Colin Borland, of the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses, and journalist Rob Edwards.
A question from Barbara Sampson in the audience prompted the debate on what could be done to reverse the decline of Hamilton as a shopping centre.
She said: “I’m old enough to remember when it was very prosperous and successful in drawing visitors from a large area and now it is derelict.”
Mr Taylor said it was a question that could be posed about almost every UK town.
Figures for UK retail sales for December showed a drop of 0.1 per cent, he added, with big chains, such as HMV, going into administration.
Mr Borland said more public services had to be delivered in town centres to address the problem. He added: “I think the only way to get activity back into town centres is not to rely solely on retail.
“There has to be a broad range of employers, including public and private.”
Referring to an article in the Hamilton Advertiser, Mr Taylor said that one in four shop units lay empty in Hamilton town centre and that charity shops were having to reconsider their position.
Members of the audience blamed the decline on competition from supermarkets, the rise of the internet, out-of-town shopping, parking charges, traffic congestion, the economic downturn and lack of job security.
Another member of the audience said that, for the town centre to survive, local planners have to provide a mixture of commerce and social and leisure facilities.
She said: “I live in Biggar and that has a vibrant high street. Are the high streets just for commerce or should they be social spaces for people to mix and interact and take part in leisure activities?”
Helen Moir, chairman of Larkhall Heritage Group, said: “Larkhall still has a high street. But it is not just for shopping, it is for socialising where folk can meet and talk about their day.”
Ms McKelvie said it was sad to see a once thriving Hamilton town centre now turned into pay-day loan stores and charity shops that don’t have to pay any rates.
The Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse MSP added: “It’s a sad indictment of today’s economy, which is one of poverty. To have blossoming pay-day loan shops shows the misery that is in the town centre.”
And she pointed out she was forced to set up her constituency office in the Barncluith Small Business Centre because the rates in Hamilton town centre were too costly.
Central Scotland Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell said the Scottish Government hadn’t helped the small business community and blasted them for ditching the town centre regeneration programme.
Mark Griffin, Labour MSP for Central Scotland, said more had to be done to make the high street more competitive with the internet by making sure that big companies, such as Amazon, pay their share of Corporation Tax.
Lanarkshire Chamber of Commerce, The Regeneration Group and The Hamilton Business Improvement District (BID) team are working hard to reverse the decline.
Labour town centre councillor Monica Lennon, a member of the BID team, said Hamilton had a lot to offer shoppers.
She added: “We are guilty of talking down our traders in Hamilton and guilty of shopping online.”
SNP town centre councillor Lynne Adams said that one business moved from Hamilton to Glasgow because the rates where cheaper.
She added: “We should look at the rate system, whereby out-of-town shops, like stores in retail parks, should pay more.”
Mr Taylor ended by thanking the audience.