PLANS by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to relocate its Galashiels JobCentre Plus service to a town centre shopping complex have been rejected this week.

Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee’s unanimously agreed on Monday that the former Internacionale fashion store at 6-8 Douglas Bridge – empty for the past three years – should instead be retained for retail use

The DWP, which is streamlining its built estate across the UK, was seeking change of use consent to facilitate the transfer of its operations from its home of the past 11 years – at New Reiver House behind High Street.

The meeting heard that the DWP had agreed an annual rent of £35,000 for the Douglas Bridge premises which comprises two adjoining units.

But the proposed move to a smaller base on a pedestrianised precinct linking the new Transport Interchange with Channel Street was opposed by five neighbouring businesses as well as their umbrella organisation Galashiels Chamber of Trade.

In his submission to the nine-member committee, Chamber chairman Craig Murray stated: “Douglas Bridge is now the most important gateway into the town centre for visitors arriving by bus on train.

“It is vital we promote Galashiels as a thriving, busy, vibrant destination, but an office development in this area would not give the best first impression.”

“If Galashiels is to reach its potential of becoming a recognised visitor destination, then careful consideration must be given to planning decisions.”

Mr Murray cited “numerous planned developments” in the town, including the establishment, due for completion in 2020, of a permanent exhibition centre for the Great Tapestry of Scotland at the top of Channel Street.

“Planning decision will have a major impact on the success or failure of these developments,” said Mr Murray. “The ambition should be to fill all vacant retail units with retail businesses…it would be inappropriate for this change of use application to be approved.”

In their submission, agents for the DWP noted the Douglas Bridge premises had been actively marketed for over 18 months with no takers.

“The proposed development would result in a footfall increase of a minimum of 150 people per day, resulting in additional joint shopping trips…it would bring a vacant unit back into active use, thus contributing to the vitality and viability of the town centre,” stated the agents.

It was a view shared, on balance, by Carlos Clarke, SBC’s planning team leader, who recommended approval of the DWP bid.

“The contribution it [Job Centre Plus] will make to the town centre, if not significant, is preferable to the potential for the units to continue to remain unoccupied,” concluded Mr Clarke.

Councillor Sandy Aitchison (Galashiels and District) admitted his committee faced “a difficult decision”.

“On the one hand we don’t want vacant shops, but on the other we must give Galashiels time to reach its potential as a vibrant town,” he said. “This will not happen overnight, but with the Tapestry coming to the town, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

“The Tapestry presents a unique opportunity to regenerate Galashiels and, in my view, we must look at the long game by preserving for retail use this important and attractive part of town.”

The committee concurred and refused the application, citing SBC’s planning policy ED4 aimed at preserving the “core retail function” of Galashiels town centre.

After the meeting, local MSP Christine Grahame welcomed the decision.

“I agree that Douglas Bridge ought to be the gateway to the town centre with passengers from the Transport Interchange crossing the river and making their way into Channel Street and onwards to the new Tapestry centre,” said Ms Grahame.

“On arrival in Galashiels, visitors should be met with the best retail outlets and eateries the town has to offer.

“Hopefully, Galashiels can now move forward with a longer term vision of regeneration.”

The Border Telegraph sought to discover if the DWP intended to appeal the planning rebuff, but had been unable to elicit a comment at the time of going to press.