‘Two paychecks away from a crisis’: Is Ayr losing its Victorian splendour?

Ben Wray

With its high street in decline and austerity biting hard, Scotland’s seaside jewel has faced lean years – can it be turned around?

THE massive white cladding covering the Ayr Station Hotel has transformed the onetime symbol of the town’s vitality into the representation of its lean times.

The owner is absent from the town and the council has stepped in to make safe the rotting building, which last year closed some of the train services from Ayr to South Ayrshire’s more isolated communities.

A huge white tent of the station exclusion zone, which obscures the handsome Victorian structure, now dominates the skyline of a county town suffering from a declining high street and class divides in the era of austerity.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Esther Clark, chair of Save the Station Hotel campaign, says: “Ayr Station Hotel is an iconic building. It greets you as you come in and dominates the top of the town.”

More than just a business, the formerly nationalised building is a major town asset, once hosting everything from wedding receptions to community events. It’s dereliction if its 75 bedrooms has also created a shortage in the town, a real problem for ‘Burns Country’ and a traditional seaside resort.

“We have a treasury of Georgian buildings,” says Esther.

Fine architecture is part of Ayr’s heritage as a traditionally well-heeled place, which enjoyed strong growth at the height of the British Empire. In those days, investment for prestige and longevity was normal, particularly in strong Tory boroughs. In austerity Britain, cheap and short run replacement is in vogue, and a simple steel and glass edifice is one of the replacement options for faded grandeur.

But the campaigners want to secure the building for future generations.

“When we first had a big public meeting and we first had the council agree in principal – if it cost them no money – to look at a compulsory purchase order, was when we were looking to get an organisation to take over to do a feasibility study, and economic analysis and all these kind of things to find an ongoing, lasting solution to all this.

“The kinds of purposes for which it could be used are quite numerous,” says Clark, and could include private enterprises as well as community facilities.

The issue, says SNP Councillor Peter Henderson, speaking to CommonSpace in the towns sumptuous county buildings, is one of the rights that local authorities have when they are left in the care of large pieces of infrastructure they do not own.

“We can only intervene if a building is infested, or if its dangerous. So we have to, under the law. We are trying to come up with a plan for it, but it’s a private building,” he says.

“What I’m hopeful for – I know it’s going through the Scottish parliament right now – is compulsory sales orders. The general public don’t seem to understand what a compulsory purchase order entails. An independent evaluation must be done, not just what state the building is in but what it could be worth. Then you have to pay a compensation payment on top of that.

“So if you take the station hotel, yes we could have got an independent evaluation, compensation payment, probably several million pounds paid, and then what do we do with it? We have to start again.”

This is a serious problem in other parts of South Ayrshire, like Girvan, where a picture house and Bingo hall have lain empty for 14 years. It’s just another headache for a part of the country where high streets are a vital economic resource.

The biggest threat facing the local authority?

“From a town centre point of view its the closure of retail. The loss of retail, retaining good employment, good jobs.

“But I think we are just the same as any other part of the country. Employment is the main thing, to keep people here.

“South Ayrshire is a lovely part of the world. But a lot of people are coming here to retire. Which is great, and people are living longer, but that costs us more from a health and social care point of view. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but they don’t contribute to society in the same way as full time employees.

“One of the things we’ll find is that young people from South Ayrshire will go to Glasgow. Say, to university. Unless there is something to bring them back, they don’t come back.”

The town and much of the surrounding areas have also been hit hard by austerity.

“Universal Credit has caused many problems for local people – so many that the council has had to take on 14 new members of staff to administer it,” he says.

“Many constituents have come to me as a councillor about Universal Credit. But the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) won’t speak to us. They will only speak with an MP.”

“It’s the social negative affect it has on people and their families. The sanctions regime is draconian, certain cases I’ve taken up are absolutely ridiculous, with people reassessed when they have life-threatening illnesses.”

“One of the major issues in rural areas is that if someone is on universal credit, they have to do it online. We have whole areas where there is no internet. There’s not even a mobile phone signal. So people are having to travel by bus to the job centre, spending half their Universal Credit payment to get there.”

Ayr’s latest budget, passed just minutes before CommonSpace spoke to Henderson, will be familiar in many ways to those across Scotland. Council tax increases of up to 4.79 per cent accompany service cuts and increased prices for some council services against a backdrop of cuts to central budgets both from Westminster and Holyrood.

Though he is satisfied that the council budget has pulled out the stops in a lean year, Henderson admits that the council is caught between actually helping people and simply fending off the worst of the cuts from central government.

He says: “We want to improve things. You have to minimise damage and mitigate as best you can, last year we re-organised the council. I’m proud to say we have adhered to our policy of no compulsory redundancies.”

But the council has re-organised, with the loss of jobs.

“The most deprived, frontline services, children and the elderly is our priority,” he says. Policies including the extension of free school meals to P4s and the creation of school meals services during holidays, as well as deployment of the councils capital budget are meant to meet some of the mounting problems.

The cruel inequalities of modern Scotland are on stark display in Ayr. South of the river and the town centre is the so called ‘golden mile’, large suburban properties and leafy streets. North of the harbour hosts some of Scotland’s poorest communities. 

The river itself creates a natural barrier, and the physical difference is striking. South is sandstone, lush gardens and ornate churches. North is high-rises and squat flats.

“There are areas of deprivation even in the most affluent parts,” says Henderson. “Most people are two paychecks away from a crisis.”

In the town centre itself, many of the shop fronts are vacant, a situation that only got worse the day before CommonSpace arrived in town, with the closure of Hourstons department store after 123 years at the heart of the town centre.

Kieran Glyn, a worker at the store for six years on and off, told CommonSpace about the last day of Hourstons: “I think there was a very weird atmosphere in store. It was quite nostalgic, it was quite eerily calm as well. Staff were obviously nostalgic towards the end of the day.”

Read more: ‘It’s only a ghost town when you look up’: How Dumfries town centre could thrive through re-population

What Glyn calls the independent department store’s “’Are You Being Served’ charm” hasn’t proved any match for the rapid changes to high streets all across the UK. 

“Because we were an independent we got to focus more on the customer service side as well. That’s how we built up a bigger rapport with our customers.

“The downfall is, that a lot of people then weren’t shopping. [They] weren’t going into a shop to purchase something but were going on line. It became common for people to come into the shop but be like: ‘I’ll think about it’ or ‘I’ll buy it online’.”

From Glyn’s point of view though, this isn’t just an automatic process. Choices were made that undercut the high street.

“We noticed a big dip with the issues with Ayr train station, when the trains stopped going south of Ayr to Girvan and Maybole, we witnessed a downturn and missing some of our regular customers.

“A journey that would take 20 or 30 minutes would take an hour on the bus.”

Read More: Motherwell – Struggling to escape the past, cut to the bone in the present

Glyn also thinks that grander shopping experiences out of town, like the Silverburn centre near Glasgow and the growth of up-market retail in Glasgow city centre, in combination with new transport links to these places helped damage footfall in a high street lacking choice. 

But community efforts are underway to revive the town centre. At the bottom of the town, where the high street almost peters-out from a shortage of footfall, public art exhibitions are filling some of the vacant shop fronts.

Local residents organised by Moving Arts Scotland have opened an Arts and Crafts centre with the permission of the owners of one vacated shop.

Alison Logan of the centre blames the council for the decline of the high street, which she believes put to much emphasis on developing retail as it boomed in recent decades.

“That was the council’s choice. They decided to build a big new build up the top of the town, Ayr Central. That still isn’t filled. And before that they built the Kyle Centre, it was never filled. So I think the council are largely to blame for really bad decisions.

Read more: BREAD – Our plan to help build a sustainable circular economy in Ayr

“There’s that many shops now and they are empty. That’s why the shops are away. But you can’t stop progress.

“The hyping up of the retail sector was the Kyle Centre here. But it never worked!”

She likens the changes to industrialisation, and calls on an effort to counter decline like the arts and crafts movement that kicked back against the monotony of industrialisation in the late 1800s.

“We’ve been there before with industrialisation, and people moved on from a tiny wee loom in their front room, weaving and lace-making. That all went because of big factories.

“The industrial age is away, it’s all electronic now and the internet. We need to come back to skills like the arts and crafts movement. Art is special, it’s one off. You have to bring it back down to showing people how to work with their hands – education.”

Small trades and businesses should be brought back she believes, and the town repopulated after the flats above shops were cleared for storage space during the town centre boom.

The council’s plans to revive the town centre are nothing if not ambitious.

They involve the relocation of swimming and leisure facilities to the town centre, the creation of new public spaces replacing some of the excess housing stock and encouraging the opening of more empty shops to the people of the town. If met by popular enthusiasm and organisation, these things could yet see Ayr’s fortunes reversed.

But bigger questions must be answered about how we organise the ownership, economy and society of our urban spaces for those efforts to produce lasting changes.

Pictures: CommonSpace

Support YOUR independent media