Comment: Diversity key to reinvigorating high streets

Scott Reid. Picture: Julie Bull
Scott Reid. Picture: Julie Bull
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WHAT makes a successful high street? Clearly, a lack of boarded-up shop fronts helps, though it’s not in itself a recipe for success. Not if the only occupiers are charity shops and discounters.

The real success stories have managed to strike a balance between retail provision – both local businesses and national chains – and leisure operators such as cafes, bars and restaurants.

We have some fine examples in Scotland – St Andrews, Peebles and North Berwick spring to mind. Places that deserve a few hours of your time wandering around. Admittedly, those three examples also have strong tourist appeal, where some of our town centres are a little less destination-friendly, but the mixed model is a useful blueprint.

Smaller retailers have been under the cosh since the rise of the out-of-town superstore and, more recently, retail parks with their big sheds and acres of free parking. The lure of big names with the promise of instant investment and new jobs can be hard for councils to resist.

Those challenges for the independents and high street-focused chains have been compounded by the explosion in online shopping over the past decade or so. Throw in the most protracted economic downturn in 60 years, from which we are only now recovering, and it’s easy to see how many stores have gone to the wall.

Yet the upheaval in certain sectors has, and still is, providing opportunities for others. Witness the continuing boom in coffee shops and “casual dining” eateries springing up in former banking premises.

Efforts to offer something a little different haven’t always proved successful, however.

Edinburgh’s former Waverley Market shopping centre, which opened in the mid-80s, attempted to bring a village vibe to the centre of the city. There were fountains, flora, an inviting food court and plenty of stalls selling bits and bobs.

Inexplicably, and regrettably, it mutated some years back into the ugly duckling that is the Princes Mall. One hopes the redevelopment of the nearby and much larger St James centre is more fruitful.

Away from the big cities and tourist hot-spots, there is a much greater challenge in retaining existing retailers and bringing in fresh blood.

Expanding the remit of business improvement districts to encompass local property owners as well as business tenants is a model suggested last week by the Centre for Policy Studies in a report entitled How to Privatise the High Street.

Radical thinking is certainly required. A relaxation of stifling planning rules and an acceptance that a shop unit cannot forever be a shop unit may be necessary.

The successful and vibrant high street of the future will be the one that embraces every possible usage – be it retailer, cafe, gallery, take-away, pop-up store, community hangout or restaurant. «