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Street fight: Nicola Sturgeon’s town centre funds pledge sparks row

Sturgeon town centre
Perth city centre.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon promised to revitalise Scotland’s ailing town centres in a funding pledge opponents claim falls “well short”.

Ms Sturgeon outlined commitments worth £1 billion to help retailers and communities recover from the impact of the Covid crisis.

The package is made up of £275 million over five years to regenerate high streets and 100% rates rebate worth £719 million, both already announced by the Scottish Government.

New funds worth £10 million will go towards a Scotland Loves Local campaign to encourage people to shop in their areas.

Scottish Labour said the bulk of the election pitch is “recycled” and “pathetic”.

But Ms Sturgeon insisted: “If people want this investment to regenerate and revitalise our high streets, then the key point is you have to vote SNP to get it.”

High streets in crisis

The intervention comes as the scale of the crisis continues to make its mark on retailers ranging from independent shops to department stores.

In Aberdeen, a major campaign is under way to keep John Lewis in the city centre. Across the country, smaller retailers are bearing the brunt while supermarkets and online sales continue during lockdown.

John Lewis announced it is pulling out of Aberdeen.

The Scottish Retail Consortium estimated last month that shuttered shops are losing £130 million a week because of public health restrictions. The group said the first four months of the year usually accounts for about 30% of annual retail sales.

Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, criticised the proportion of new money in the SNP pledge.

She said: “Businesses are struggling, with many having received little or no support during the pandemic, and this pitiful offering falls well short of what is needed.

“After 14 years in government and seven years as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon is clearly out of ideas.

“Once again she has had to resort to recycling existing policies in an attempt to hide the pathetic offer she is actually making to Scotland’s businesses.

“Scottish businesses deserve better than an extra 1%, and Scotland deserves better than the SNP.”

Sturgeon town centre
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Ms Sturgeon thanked businesses for the “sacrifices” endured to help get the virus under control.

“Revitalising our town centres and communities was already a priority of the SNP government before the pandemic struck, but that agenda is now essential,” she added.

Responding to Ms Baillie’s criticism, the SNP leader said: “It is new money when it gets spent.

“The fact we have previously, in the programme for government, indicated we were going to spend it, and in an election campaign are underlining the fact we are going to spend it doesn’t seem to me a particularly novel approach to campaigning.”

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said ministers must put business rates on an “affordable and sustainable footing”.

He added: “The business rate has risen by one fifth since the start of the last decade; we need a firm timeline for lowering it.”

‘Focus on recovery’

Meanwhile, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross announced his party’s proposals to tackle a “jobs crisis”.

His post-pandemic rebuilding plan includes “unlimited” demand-led apprenticeships.

Mr Ross said: “We would expand funding for graduate apprenticeship and foundation apprenticeships for S5 and S6 pupils.

“As well as removing the £15,000 government support cap, we would guarantee that apprentices receive off-the-job training and ensure more women can access apprenticeships.

“We have already announced our Retrain to Rebuild proposal to give £500 grants per year to every single worker in Scotland.

“If we focus on recovery instead of a referendum, we can deliver a skills revolution as we emerge from the pandemic.”