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Rallying call to all for 'out of the box' thinking to shape future of Inverness city centre

By Val Sweeney

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Opportunities are being explored for the future shape of Inverness city centre.
Opportunities are being explored for the future shape of Inverness city centre.

Ambitious 'out of the box' thinking is needed to ensure Inverness has a city centre people want to visit as it recovers from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

That is the call from city MP Drew Hendry and other leaders who have joined the debate about the future direction of the city as it faces significant challenges in bouncing back.

Ideas range from pursuing the idea of "20-minute neighbourhoods" – where people should be able pick up all they need within a walkable area – to the creation of local co-working office spaces.

It follows calls from business leaders to explore alternative uses for empty commercial properties in Inverness which has suffered its share of high profile national casualties including Debenhams.

Mr Hendry said Inverness was well placed to bounce back and issued a rallying call for everyone to get involved.

"Greater ambition and vision, along with determination, are needed to revitalise and regenerate our city centre," he said.

"To succeed, we will need support from Government, the council and business groups – but most importantly, we all need to own the challenge."

Inverness MP Drew Hendry.
Inverness MP Drew Hendry.

Mr Hendry acknowledged work, such as the transformation of Inverness Castle and improvements around the rail station, was already happening.

He also felt it was important the centre should be genuinely family-friendly with reduced traffic.

"The city centre has to be become somewhere people want go - for kids to be in a place which is not boring, for parents to be in a place they think is safe, a place people want to enjoy and spend time and, from a commercial point of view, spend their money," he said.

Mr Hendry believed the area was suited to the principle of "20-minute neighbourhoods" with more opportunities for small independent businesses prepared to work together.

"Crucially, they need to look at each other not as competitors but as collaborators.

"None of this is new. There is work going on.

"There is a real need to accelerate that and apply some real ambition to taking that forward."

Inverness depute provost Cllr Bet McAllister, said: "We do have a number of small businesses and I think people here enjoy supporting them."

Cllr McAllister felt the revamp of the Victorian Market would make a difference to the centre once completed.

She also suggested ideas should be sought from community councils about how they envisaged the city's future.

Eastgate Shopping Centre manager Jackie Cuddy.
Eastgate Shopping Centre manager Jackie Cuddy.

Jackie Cuddy, manager of the Eastgate Shopping Centre, acknowledged the loss of Debenhams had been a blow but said they were applying "blue sky" thinking to potential future uses for the space such as leisure and were optimistic about the shopping centre's long-term future.

"So many people don't want online any more – they want the experience of going out," she said.

Inverness GP Dr Katie Walter felt it was important to create a more environmentally-friendly city.

"We have never had such a good opportunity to take a giant leap forward for our own physical heath and mental health and our planet's health," she said.

"We need to start getting our of our cars and it is urgent."

Polly Chapman, of Impact Hub Inverness – which saw an increase in interest for co-working space during lockdown – said retail and office spaces needed to be shaped to support small-scale operations.

"Big corporations and organisations are already making the move away from one central office, or having an office at all," she said.

"But we have all discovered what many in the Highlands already knew, and that is that working from home can be lonely and isolating, demotivating and demoralising.

"We miss human contact and connection but there is also a vibe in a workplace that leads to innovation, new ways of thinking, and new collaborations."

Donald Begg, director of Begg Shoes, which has branches in Union Street and Eastgate, said accessibility for all modes of transport had been a major issue for years.

"At the moment, focus seems to be on restricting access to cars which we can't understand," he said.

"We will be offering our customers a refund on their parking charge if they buy from us as we see we need to encourage footfall to our stores."

He also called for Highlands and Islands Enterprise to help new entrepreneurs to take a chance in the city centre.

"We believe Inverness can have a great city centre but without good decision making at this juncture, there will not be a great future for it," he said.

Related story: Project to improve vitality of inverness city centre street

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