Kevin Buckle: The high street could look very different come 2020

Shoppers seek a bargain in Edinburgh on Boxing Day ' but high street retail's future is unclear. Picture: PA
Shoppers seek a bargain in Edinburgh on Boxing Day ' but high street retail's future is unclear. Picture: PA
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It was impossible to avoid all the news about the high street this week but it has to be remembered that while the way people spend their money these days can be fairly accurately generalised the solutions are very different in different parts of the UK.

So many reports are based on London and though there are many places that might share the same problem of empty shops the solutions are not the same. What is more the message coming out almost seemed to be that retail was dead, long live libraries and community hubs.

Legendary fanzine Deadbeat has been immortalised on a T-shirt

Legendary fanzine Deadbeat has been immortalised on a T-shirt

There is a big difference between supporting retail on the high street and actually giving up on it and repurposing the buildings, yet often it is unclear exactly what is planned. Also, while obviously certain buildings can be targeted for alternative uses the high street can’t become one huge community hub.

A mixed use clearly makes sense as the community buildings bring people in and add footfall for the remaining retailers but again the likelihood is this will benefit mainly those selling food.

Most important of all for Edinburgh, the problems facing the high street are not one of empty shops but one of diversity as it has to be decided whether retailers cater for nothing but visitors because they are the only people spending money.

Many, including myself, saw the St James development as simply a nice new replacement shopping centre with a few add-ons whereas now the talk is of how the development will be pitched to the public and nobody thinks that “shopping centre” will be a phrase that will be encouraged.

Tidying the flowerbeds at Morningside Station on the South Sub line in 1961

Tidying the flowerbeds at Morningside Station on the South Sub line in 1961

Nothing highlights the difference between other city centres and Edinburgh more than the news that all over the UK councils have been buying empty shopping centres so they can invest and repurpose them because nobody in the private sector would. In Edinburgh the opposite is true, with Waverley Mall having changed hands last year with promise of significant private investment and plans to make the centre an arts and culture destination.

Edinburgh is lucky to have problems with its high street that at least can be addressed – but therein lies the problem. If a plan is put in place as happened with the Royal Mile Action Plan a few years ago it is not followed through. There now needs to be a high street plan for all of Edinburgh and its improvements can’t simply be seen to be an offshoot of other initiatives.

Of course Edinburgh Council did manage to have one city-wide plan for businesses this year but that was to stop them using A-boards. Something that was perfectly sensible on a case by case basis became a blanket ban that made no sense at all.

With the City Centre Transformation Plan largely focusing on transport as I have said before businesses and the high street need their own plan. Moreover while the CCTP is to be delivered in May any thoughts on helping Edinburgh’s businesses need to start in January!

Certainly that isn’t to exclude businesses from wider plans and there will of course always be a synergy between any plans for the city centre but the council needs to react to what is needed and not lobbying.

Businesses do need to be better organised themselves but in difficult times that isn’t easy and hence my support for an Old Town BID. Nobody is more aware of the failings that plagued the Grassmarket BID but a larger Old Town BID working closely with the very successful Essential Edinburgh BID has to be considerably better than nothing.

The Old Town BID will if successful not be in place until late in the year so again things cannot wait to see that result. All involved in the Old Town need to support this. Following on from last week’s sentiment only this time for the Old Town “surely as we approach 2019 it is worth all sides considering whether it is time to be a little more conciliatory in their approach and to each other”. Possibly too long to ever become a catchphrase.

One thing is for sure and that is if nothing is done soon even in Edinburgh the high street will look very different in 2020.

Deadbeat’s descendant on a T-shirt

On Christmas Eve I met up with Alan McEwan, who produced a famous fanzine called Deadbeat in the early eighties. He had kindly allowed me to use the cover of one of the fanzines, which had a hand drawn picture of Strawberry Switchblade on the cover and included among others a review of a Smiths gig, as artwork for a T-shirt.

There to hand over three shirts in a variety of sizes over a pint in Alan’s case and a coffee in mine, Alan regaled me with an hour’s worth of stories that are obviously just the tip of a great iceberg. Extremely enjoyable it was too and I came away thinking that I really doubt when a similar amount of time has passed if anybody will have anything remotely as entertaining to tell about their blog or the time a pop star sent them an email.

Somebody should give Alan a book deal!

New South Sub hopes are on the right track

There was a very positive response to my piece on bringing back the South Suburban Railway recently. Very similar to what happened when I wrote about the proposed development of King’s Stables Road several people who had been involved before got in touch.

I neither have the time nor the expertise to get too involved myself but I’m certainly happy to put folk in touch with each other and for those asking I’m sure the idea will be given full consideration, especially as some circumstances have changed and mostly for the better.

On the surface and then with a little investigation it seemed to be an idea with much to recommend it and speaking to those with expertise in the matter it only confirmed that it was seriously worth looking at.

No doubt there will be more news in the New Year and if anybody does have something to contribute do feel free to get in touch.