ONCE they were the bustling heart of our towns and cities, packed full of people spending their money in shops which vied with each other for the locations which ensured a steady flow of customers.
Today the high streets of Scotland are a very different sight, often scarred by boarded-up shops whose proprietors have long since gone out of business. Even in our big cities, the signs of decline are there, with major thoroughfares often resorting to hoardings painted like busy shops to disguise the vacancies which lie behind this retail façade.
And if we think things are bad now, there is new evidence today that worse is to come. A report by the Centre for Retail Research, warns that almost one in four stores on Scotland’s high streets will disappear in the coming years. According to the report, Retail Futures 2018, there will be about three closures every day for the next five years, with the decline in Scotland more acute than across the UK.
The consequences are also alarming, with the report concluding that “Britain has too many stores”, that the future of High Streets in more than 150 towns across the UK is at risk and many will “vanish completely”.
We do not need to look too far to understand why. First, our stuttering economy is making people less willing to spend. But more fundamentally, we are all of us increasingly doing our shopping online. We can hope the economy will recover eventually, but we will hope in vain that this will lead to a revival in high streets as we have known them. Internet retailing has seen to that, and it would be foolish to try to turn back the clock.
What is needed is a radical restructuring of our “high streets”. An example of this is the idea prompted by Edinburgh City Council that Princes Street might become home to more restaurants, coffee shops and the like to give it more life.
There have been suggestions that people should once again to be attracted back to live in town and city centres as a way of providing customers for different types of shops with the aim of breathing more life into these areas.
These ideas, to accept and embrace change, make a lot of sense. If we are to achieve this new vision and not surrender the high street to pound chains and charity shops – though they have their place – government and local authorities must play their part.
Holyrood ministers have been putting funds into town centres, but in particular the £36 million rates levy on empty shops, intended to force retailers not to leave premises empty, does not appear to be working.
Our high streets have changed forever. So far they have not changed for the better, but they can still do so. If we apply imagination and co-ordinated action, high streets can once again become the thriving, bustling heart of our communities, with more than just shops.
Cut costs, but not access to justice
Access to justice for all and equality of representation in our courts is one of the fundamental principles on which the Scottish legal system rests. Everyone, whatever their means, should be properly represented in the courts. We should all be equal under the law.
It is therefore of considerable concern that advocates claim these principles are being put at risk by Scottish Government court reform plans, under which cases of lesser importance will be heard by new summary sheriffs instead of in the Court of Session.
According to the Faculty of Advocates, people relying on legal aid would automatically be represented by one of their members in the Court of Session, but in the Sheriff Court that would only happen in “exceptional” cases.
It should be acknowledged that the Faculty, despite its distinguished status, is effectively the trade union for advocates, who have in the past been opposed to reforms which affected their status – and, let us be honest, their remuneration.
One must also consider the Scottish Government’s view that moving less serious cases to a lower court will contribute towards the £55 million Audit Scotland estimates is wasted in our justice system every year. In difficult financial times, we should not dismiss such economies out of hand.
Nevertheless, if it is true that those who can afford to hire advocates for trials in the Sheriff courts will be at an advantage simply by virtue of their means, Holyrood ministers should think again about their proposals. Equality under the law is too important a principle to be sacrificed on the alter of government cost cutting.