There have been several dilapidated buildings in the centre of Wick for as long as I can remember; old buildings of importance that have been left empty for decades, falling into disrepair and becoming an eyesore on the most visited parts of the town. Boarded up, deteriorating slowly, the once proud and beautiful buildings from the photographs did nothing to alleviate the reputation of Wick as being dark and unkempt. Local feeling was strong; they were an eyesore and something had to be done but as they were privately owned and the buildings would periodically be made safe, there seemed nothing that anybody could do.
When our only SNP councillor became elected as our constituency MSP, we secured the election of another SNP councillor in her place. Where the area had already had a good collaborative working approach between the local councillors, most of whom were “independent”, this now stepped up a notch and the three of the four ward councillors began working together in earnest. It did not always sit well with our local branch who did not fully trust the motives of the opposition and, as the press refused to mention the political membership of our candidate, the SNP never got credited in any of the good news stories. Over time, the electorate’s belief that our candidate was yet another Independent changed as his SNP membership was regularly mentioned, the penny finally dropped with the local press and they began to include it in their reports.
Work began to regenerate the town centre. Already started by the previous Councillor, work and consultation started to investigate ownership issues of not only the dilapidated buildings but other areas of open space throughout the town. The belief in Caithness that Inverness gets everything is strong but as the generally united approach of the councillors working together for the good of the town rather than their own individual interests grew, they were able to secure funding and investigations that had never been available previously. Unheard of sums of money became available for maintenance, road repairs and other concerns and, finally, compulsory purchase orders were made and approved on the two buildings situated right in the heart of the town. There has been some ironic pleasure taken in hearing Moray Firth based people complaining that all the money goes to Caithness after years of hearing the opposite!
These two buildings have now gone. What was left of their shells was knocked down, the sites are empty and waiting for the next stage in their development. One building had been a large detached building used as a picture house many years ago and is now a area that would lend itself to a garden, the other was an end terraced building at the harbour. When this building was demolished, the markings of the building were left imprinted upon the gable end of the building next door as were the markings where the chimneys from each room would have been. Interestingly, the outline of another smaller building showed that must have stood there hundreds of years ago and which must have been demolished to make way for this one in its place!
The ownership of these two pieces of land have now been handed over to a community group to develop and maintain and the council’s involvement in this ends. The town itself has been hit hard in recent years with shop closures and, like many small towns all over the country, the High Street has many empty buildings. No matter how often you improve the look of the place, or take action on issues, a feeling of loneliness and emptiness still pervades. Already having lost a bank and our post office in recent weeks (although the latter has been reinstated part time in what was yet another empty building), we learnt yesterday that our SemiChem will close. A shop that I and many others use regularly, it stocked many items that meant I did not have to travel to the out of town retailers, this will be yet another blow to the community. Right in the heart of our high street and with a cash dispenser outside, the staff who have all worked there for many years will unfortunately have to find new employment like many others before them.
I suspect this will not be the only shop that fails to make it through the impact that this pandemic has had but it is not the only reason that these shops do not survive, Councils can take lots of steps as we are seeing to improve how a town centre works and looks, making it pedestrian focused and a nice place to be, but support and investment into how buildings are leased also needs to be considered. Rates are high and this prevents many from using the buildings in the first place even though there are many good ideas out there. A huge building stands empty that was once the local Woolworths and has long been mooted as the ideal location for a marketplace style of units where local businesses could rent a small area to sell their goods. Many local produce suppliers have diversified and now offer their food directly but there is no central location from where you can purchase or even discover it.
Collaborative approaches to solving the issues that Scotland faces has to be in the forefront just now and it that means taking a leap in the dark and putting your trust into others to achieve an end result that benefits everyone then this must at least be considered if there is at least a chance of achieving what you need to. It is a difficult decision and needs a belief that your ideas and strengths will carry through and the result will be what you envisioned but we cannot always do things on our own and need others to help get us there as we have seen in Caithness with the investment and improvements that will eventually make our town the best that it can be as they say up here – Wick works weil.