Time to breathe life back in to Scots high streets
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.