Time to breathe life back in to Scots high streets

The Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

THE tin­sel is al­ready up. The cheesy ad­verts have started on TV. Soon Scot­land’s shops will start pip­ing Christ­mas car­ols. How­ever, there is not a lot of sea­sonal cheer to be had on the High Street. Re­tail sales, the lat­est fig­ures sug­gest, re­main in the doldrums.

Their old back to school boost failed to ma­te­ri­alise in the au­tumn. Fin­gers will be crossed for the hol­i­day sea­son.

But the omens are not good. Brexit and its costs cast a long dark shadow over the Scot­tish econ­omy. Would-be Christ­mas shop­pers, af­ter all, are braced for rises in in­ter­est rates, taxes and, above all, prices.

The signs are there for us all to see on the High Street: they say “To let”. Even the great drags of our main ci­ties, such as Glas­gow’s Sauchiehall Street, have forests of them.

The rea­son: more shops are shut­ting than are open­ing, a long­stand­ing trend. The most re­cent num­bers, re­vealed today, show some progress. The gap be­tween new stores ap­pear­ing and old ones dis­ap­pear­ing is nar­row­ing. But Scot­land ap­pears to be do­ing worse than the rest of the UK.

Glas­gow and Ed­in­burgh bore the brunt of clo­sures, though the num­ber of stores shut­ting up shop for good has fallen in both ci­ties.

The econ­omy will ebb and flow. Re­tail sales will rise and fall. The chal­lenges of in­ter­net shop­ping and out-of-town malls will not go away.

But Scot­land’s towns and ci­ties can no longer put off rad­i­cal re­thinks of their city cen­tres. Empty shops might just of­fer an op­por­tu­nity for re­birth.

The days of seek­ing iden­tikit ho­moge­nous shop­ping cen­tres with the same tired range of High Street brands must come to an end. Why should shop­ping in Aberdeen feel the same as in Ex­eter.

Why should Glas­gow city cen­tre of­fer ex­actly the same cof­fee shops as those in Belfast?

Take Glas­gow. At one time the city of­fered pep­per­corn rents for hun­dreds of shops. Up sprouted bou­tiques and cafes of­fer­ing some­thing quite dif­fer­ent to be big cor­po­rate brands.

Peo­ple had a rea­son to drive past the malls or put down their lap­tops.

The city then spun off its prop­erty arm and mort­gaged its shops. The re­sult? Its High Street is now a desert, aban­doned by niche re­tail­ers.

Ci­ties must once again be em­pow­ered to en­cour­age small busi­nesses in va­cant or low-value re­tail spa­ces. Coun­cils, like Glas­gow, must once again see their stocks of re­tail space as an op­por­tu­nity for re­gen­er­a­tion, not a cash cow.

Some cite busi­ness rates as a rea­son shops are clos­ing. This re­quires ur­gent at­ten­tion. There are no easy fixes to va­cant shops. But flex­i­ble rates may well be as im­por­tant as flex­i­ble rents.

Our ci­ties are rightly con­cerned about traf­fic on their streets. But the cost of city cen­tre park­ing is pro­hib­i­tive. Surely in an age of in­ter­net pric­ing, park­ing charges can be as flex­i­ble as air­fares? Quiet Satur­day? Cut the cost of leav­ing the car.

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