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'Healthy town' probe throws up some surprises

By Scott Maclennan

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A “health check” of Ross-shire towns will help inform future decision-making.

Highland Council has surveyed Inverness and 14 towns in the region and assessed them against set factors to provide an understanding of how they performed commercially.

Town centres under the spotlight are: Alness, Beauly, Brora, Dingwall, Dornoch, Fort William, Golspie, Invergordon, Nairn, Portree, Tain, Thurso, Ullapool and Wick.

Each has been marked out of 50 with Fort William, surprising to some, coming out on top at 44, followed by Brora with a score of 43 – despite its 39 per cent vacancy rate – and Alness, which recently netted Britain’s best high street award.

For many the results will come as a surprise as towns like Dingwall and Dornoch outperformed larger places like Nairn and the “winner” Fort William in a number of criteria, including retail offering and vacancy rates.

Among the ten factors considered in the “health check” were cycle and pedestrian access, historic buildings, the breadth of the retail offering, as well as open spaces and green infrastructure.

Dingwall High Street, which has long suffered from complaints about empty shop fronts, actually has less vacancy by percentage than Inverness.

It is also considered to have an excellent and varied commercial offering that outpaces the more populous Alness and is matched only by Thurso in the north.

Alness is considered to be thriving particularly due to its “vibrant” High Street and in terms of green space availability.

Budget leader Alister Mackinnon, councillor for the Dingwall and Seaforth ward, said: “I think comparing the other town centres which are often seen only in terms of vacancies, which is important, is very welcome. It highlights the positives as well as the challenges and it is a positive message for Dingwall despite some of the negative comments that comes its way sometimes.”

The chair of the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee, councillor Allan Henderson said: “Checking the strength and vitality of our town centres is essential to enable better decision and policy making.

“These new health checks allow us all to base analysis on a snapshot in time. In future years, through identifying changes to this baseline, we will be able to better monitor the effectiveness of decisions made.”

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