Town centres are where everyone comes together – whether you’re a shopper on a mission, a passing tourist or a businessperson.
Elgin is no different with the High Street and surrounding area being not only the heart of the town but a destination for the wider area.
With that demand comes an endless list of issues, whether it being anti-social behaviour, parking complaints or extra attention for gulls or graffiti.
The Press and Journal joined Elgin Bid’s two street ambassadors for a day on the front line of the High Street to see the work done to make the town centre a destination.
We saw how the team
- listened to shopkeepers to tackle key business concerns.
- Monitored the parking chaos on the High Street.
- Responded to anti-social behaviour reports from businesses.
- Acted to fix problems in the town centre.
- And worked to keep Elgin looking beautiful.
Getting started: First jobs
“Alright, what have we got on today?”
Willie Duncan is an Elgin High Street veteran after 51 years with Moray Council.
The 68-year-old is pulling on his grey Elgin Bid beanie getting ready for another day on the town centre’s front line.
With him is Sam Mainland. A younger face at 30, but no less committed as a long-standing volunteer at dozens of Elgin events.
“There’s been reports of some small fires behind one of the banks to check out.”
The duo are Elgin Bid’s two part-time street ambassadors, the eyes and ears of many agencies responsible for keeping the High Street and town centre safe and clean. They are also a makeshift mobile tourist information point in the summer.
“I’m always asked for directions to the train station,” said Sam.
They stride out of the dark archway of Harrow Inn Close at about 9.30am into the grey November light across the Plainstones and immediately get to work.
“Oh, there’s a bollard in the fountain,” says Willie within seconds.
Right enough, just about visible from street level is a battered traffic cone peeking over the rim of one of the upper basins.
Goodness knows how someone got it up there. It wouldn’t be possible for one person alone. Willie speculates there’s been a small human pyramid in the fountain overnight.
Willie said: “The first thing we do is normally go out, survey the scene and clean around the benches, particularly in the summer when there’s seagulls.
“We’re just looking for any obstacles, any broken paving, anything we can see really that’s likely to pose a problem.”
Beginning the rounds: Security checks
With the traffic cone in the fountain noted for later, we begin our rounds of High Street shops.
Today Sam and Willie are distributing posters to publicise the upcoming fun day culminating in the Christmas lights switch-on.
“Someone’s got access into that stairwell again,” one shopkeeper tells Sam.
One shop in, and they’re already hearing concerns from businesses to pass on.
It’s the entrance between Holland and Barrett and H Samuel, the one that says Pearl Assurance above the door. Inside the door are discarded camp chairs and a bright blue tarpaulin.
It’s not the first time they’ve heard concerns about this building which is only occupied at street level with the upper floors vacant.
Willie said: “The owner started off converting it into flats but for whatever reason they stopped work on it.
“There’s a ramp going up the back roof, which is how we think they’re getting in. We went in last year, got all the rubbish out and barricaded the windows shut but it looks like people are still getting in.”
Elgin Bid has keys for about 20 empty properties in the town centre to give prospective occupants easy access to view them.
The business improvement district also checks to make sure they are secure and cleans the windows of empty shops to stop them looking tatty.
With the issue logged to pass on, we’re heading onwards to check out the reports of small fires.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Virgin Money staff have been in touch about an incident at their rear entrance.
Black burn marks have been left on the white wall in the doorway with burnt paper and a juice bottle conspicuously near the scene.
It’s in an alcove in a car park with minimal street lighting and little in the way of passing footfall.
“What do you think?” Sam asks.
“Youths,” Willie instantly replies.
Anti-social behaviour was a big concern in the area in summer last year with worries culminating in the fire at Poundland.
Burn marks have also been left on North Street where a bin was set on fire.
Both Willie and Sam report things were quieter this year but say they still receive concerns.
Sam said: “Access to free bus travel was a big thing. Suddenly you had teenagers from all over able to meet in one place.”
Willie adds: “I think it’s just boredom from the kids mainly. They’re just hanging about looking for something to do.
“We always give areas a look to see if there’s any changes businesses can make to stop it from happening again.
“For example, if bins are overflowing we might encourage them to empty them, but this area looks fine.”
Countless vapes and racist graffiti
After taking care of security concerns, we’ve circled back to the fountain with a stepladder to lift the traffic cone out of the fountain.
And then it’s on with the rubber gloves to get rid of the litter.
During the summer regular action groups are organised with up to a dozen volunteers turning out to keep Elgin beautiful.
Today it’s inside the plant pots, between the benches and in doorways to clear away cans of beer, crisp packets and coffee cups.
But vapes are undoubtedly the items dropped in the bin bags the most, whether its vape packets or the vapes themselves.
After a sweep of the central Plainstones area, Sam and Willie hit the two biggest blackspots for discarded rubbish.
Sam said: “Blackfriars Road is usually the worst bit. It’s where the kids walk down from the Academy for lunch and after school.”
Willie’s buoyed that three dumped bicycles he reported last week have now been moved.
The Bid team covers a lot of ground. Their area goes from Tesco to Elgin Library and the Greyfriars Street roundabout on the A96 and has a southern boundary on Moray Street.
The team can rack up as many as 30,000 steps some days, the equivalent of about 13 miles.
Sam said: “During the summer about 40% of the job can be litter picking, especially when the seagulls are out.
“You get to know the places where people tend to throw stuff and can focus your attention there.”
A short tour of the litter hotspots
We’re now at another litter hotspot, the pathway running along the back of the St Giles Centre car park next to the A96.
While picking up empty red cans of McEwan’s lager, Willie clocks some racist graffiti that has been scribbled on railings.
He said: “The manager of the St Giles Centre is on our board, so we’ll take some pictures and report it to him. Sometimes we clean it off ourselves, sometimes we report it the police.”
Within 45 minutes, Sam and Willie have filled two bin bags with rubbish.
‘What’s that car doing there?’
Illegal parking is undoubtedly one of the biggest worries the street ambassadors see during their rounds on Elgin High Street and the town centre.
Concerns about motorists ignoring the rules have been mounting for years.
During our day on the Plainstones we see several cars drive down the High Street, many with their hazard lights on.
There’s also a HGV making a delivery to a shop despite the ban on drop-offs between 11am and 4pm.
“What’s that car doing there?” interrupts Sam while we’re discussing vacant properties.
The street ambassadors report what they see during meetings with police as well as what they hear from businesses.
However, like Moray Council, they are powerless to enforce any transgressions they see. Meanwhile, police say they don’t have the time to monitor the situation.
Willie says the volume of traffic is taking its toll on the High Street with chipped and loose slabs becoming more common.
He said: “They’re not designed to take that weight so it’s going to happen.”
What improvements do Elgin’s street ambassadors have planned?
During their rounds, Sam and Willie have been putting together a to-do list for things that need fixed or moved in future.
Benches, which Willie made himself, have been lifted back into place and the traffic cone is now out of the fountain.
However, there are other things they’ve spotted which will need extra attention.
Two loose paving slabs have been seen to add to the graffiti and the security concerns.
Willie said: “The way I see it, we’re the conduit between businesses, shoppers, Bid and the council.
“We look out for broken pavements, faulty street lights and we know the people to report them to in the council, which is quicker and more direct than a member of the public doing it.
“And in fairness to the council, they’re usually along pretty quickly to sort them.”
This summer Sam and Willie painted the lampposts on the Plainstones, returning them to their vintage black colour.
Next year they have the circular benches, which now almost as silver as they are black due to chipped paint, in their sights.
But before all that, the preparations are continuing for the big Christmas lights switch-on.
Sam said: “I’m building the face-in-the-hole photo stand for the rest of the day.”
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