LETTER: A great opportunity for Newton Stewart

I understand the application for permission to build a new supermarket at the western edge of Newton Stewart is to be put before Dumfries and Galloway Council’s planning committee in the very near future.

There would appear to be a strong appetite for the facility. However, there is an understandable, counteracting fear over the impact on our present high street.

For the record, I am not an unquestioning supporter of supermarkets but it would seem that we have an exciting, once-in-a-generation opportunity to welcome significant investment into the town, and I believe if we turn it away, we will do so at our collective peril.

Standing still is not an option. Newton Stewart competes with Castle Douglas and Stranraer, and to some extent Ayr and Dumfries. Is it this town’s residents who should have the jobs, the money to spend, the chance to develop transferable skills, and so on, or will we turn them away and continue to wring our hands over our town’s slow demise?

Many who fear for the health and future of the high street cite service and value as the basis of their fear. I cannot see the case.

Supermarkets are open for longer, provide a huge range of goods at excellent prices and have free training programmes that develop skills in their workforce. Indeed, it is worth noting that many supermarket retailers have made real efforts to employ the long term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups.

The structured career path that the supermarkets are able to offer is a great opportunity for the area.

Of course, many of our local shopkeepers have excellent relations with their customers, but to claim that their “customer service” is better than that provided by supermarkets is, at best, disingenuous.

As to the case for over- provision, one wonders why are the interested parties interested? These are companies not renowned for making bad investments.

Through sophisticated records analysis, they are aware of just how much business (pounds and pence) travels out of our town’s catchment area to other regional towns, which in turn offer what Newton Stewart doesn’t, and is in danger of not being able to offer in the future.

We must capture this spend, and recycle it through having more people being paid a wage, and in making sure that we use the inevitable change that the investment will bring to our collective benefit.

The range of foodstuffs presently available at our existing supermarkets is, in my opinion, inadequate. For instance, I purchase certain herbs, spices and oils online. I’d far rather do it in a store paying local people a wage and I know I am not alone in this view.

The case for basic clothing, especially for children, as well as computer consumables, games, DVDs, and the rest has been made eloquently by previous correspondents to The Galloway Gazette and online.

It is clear that the inexorable rise in fuel costs will make rural living an ever more expensive option, and that the influence and significance of online shopping will not go away.

I’m aware that supermarket deliveries are already made to Blackcraig, and the plethora of delivery vans on our roads is testament to our fast growing connection to the internet as a market place.

Our town, Newton Stewart, is in danger of losing most, if not all of its retail function over the next decade or so. For now, supermarket developments are one of the most robust anchors our town has available, and we must find a way of welcoming the investment and marrying it to a collective review of what we want the wider town to be in the short, medium and longer term, along with the development of strategies to make our ideas happen.

Investors and developers can be persuaded to invest in wider regeneration efforts (it is part of my “day job” to encourage them to do so) and, believe me, the government is certainly not about to ride over the horizon.

We should seek to have a conversation with them, and among ourselves, about just what Newton Stewart can be for the residents of the area it serves as well as its visitors.

This sort of debate is the basis of all successful regeneration and we must insist that our elected representatives facilitate it in very short order so that as much “gain” is made for the wider town as is possible – that way we can all be winners.

If we get this right and package a new offer well, we will be able to attract more people here to sample what else we might offer them in a rejuvenated high street, and beyond.

And, let us not forget, for all of those who want to use the high street, me included, we’ll be able to continue to do so – we won’t be forced to shop where we don’t want to.

So, come on, let’s have a dialogue with the developers, let’s make sure that this investment is welcomed and that it acts as the catalyst for positive change.

Rest assured, if we don’t want their money, others will gladly take it.

John Sellers,

Ashleigh, Newton Stewart.