Gordon Henderson: Cafe-led plan could boost capital

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JUST as your post-holiday resolve to build a barbecue pit or learn Spanish fades as quickly as your suntan, some sceptics suggest that the idea of bringing continental “cafe culture” to Edinburgh’s Princes Street might sound more attractive than the reality.

But, if we are going to try to make this work anywhere in the UK, where better to start than in the Athens of the North?

In the face of competition from the online giants and out-of-town retail barns, the Federation of Small Businesses has been pushing for initiatives that will promote mixed use of our high streets as the way forward for our town centres. Edinburgh is no different. Removing the retail-only restriction on Princes Street for 25 of the smaller units is a good idea that will give people a mixture of reasons to spend longer in the city centre.

The view on offer to people taking a break from their shopping for a meal or a drink will be unrivalled and tourists will send photos of themselves enjoying it worldwide.

The city’s planning leader, Councillor Ian Perry, has said that the status quo cannot remain and that the change he is promoting for the city is a big one. I quite agree, so would urge some careful consideration before any rush to implement these moves.

The most immediate issue is traffic on Princes Street. In order to have tables outside and a wider pavement, Princes Street’s eastbound traffic will have to be removed. This will have an impact on George Street, which will need to be resolved with the business owners there.

We will also need to revisit the question of whether all buses in Edinburgh need to go down Princes Street. I know we want to encourage people to use the city centre, but there are many other town centres in the city as well, and the lovely view from the new Princes Street cafes could be spoiled by a nose-to-tail queue of buses.

Next, if you want to attract restaurant and cafe owners then you need to go and speak to some and find out if they are interested or how they may be affected by these plans.

In The Scotsman last week, Carina Contini, who runs two restaurants in the area, claimed that a reduction in business rates and rent could be the solution to the problem – although it is possible that this may not be in the gift of the council. She pointed out: “Princes Street is out of the price range of most independent Scottish retailers, so how on earth could independent Scottish restaurateurs afford to trade there?”

Excessively high rent and rates is a problem currently faced by businesses on the Royal Mile and the effect has been that small independent businesses have left the street in favour of those that can afford it.

It is encouraging that the planning document being considered by councillors is wider than just Princes Street and also considers nearby streets such as Shandwick Place, Hanover Street, Frederick Street, Rose Street and Tollcross.

Allowing change of use for business properties in the wider city centre will allow a better mixed use offering to visitors – which in turn not only gives visitors more to do, it supports the retailers who are already there with increased foot fall. The attention Tollcross is receiving is overdue and it should be treated as a town centre. In other words, in addition to the change-of-use measures, it is time to look at transportation and parking initiatives there.

Get this right and we could put the city centre on a far more sustainable economic footing for the future – something we can all raise an espresso to.

• Gordon Henderson is the senior development manager, Scotland, for the Federation of Small Businesses