Addressing Scotland’s town centre retail challenge

Andrew Woodrow

By Andrew Woodrow, planning associate with Barton Willmore

I have fond memories of shopping in the 80s and early 90s. Visiting the Wimpy restaurant on Paisley High Street for a burger after an exciting trip to Moss Street’s Pitcher Sports to buy Patrick football boots and shin pads for my short-lived footballing career at Bishopton United. Or heading to the Kelburne Cinema on Glasgow Road to watch the latest release.

Back then Paisley had a real buzz about it. It was the place to be. It was the “big city” in my eyes and the place I could get everything I needed. Little did I know just how things would change.

Fast-forward to 2019 and our high streets are in crisis. Empty shops are increasingly appearing in what were once ‘must-have’ locations. The reliance upon the draw of ‘big retail’ is now a major issue for town centres across the UK as traditional anchor tenants such as Debenhams, House of Fraser, M&S and John Lewis all face financial challenges.

The current formula to boost footfall – including hosting events, bringing in markets and pop-up shops – has helped, but it needs a re-think. This approach simply doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problem, especially the fact that our society has become lazy. When it comes to buying things, we want it now – preferably without leaving the house. And if we have to leave the house, then we don’t want to travel far to get it or pay for parking nearby. The retailers know this only too well.

So how do we address the problem? Recent government thinking is to level the playing field through the introduction of an online retailer tax. Admittedly that would help balance the public purse at least, but I doubt it would get more of us pounding the streets with our bag for life. Online retailing moves so fast. No doubt there will be new formats found to counter this approach, whilst an online tax is also likely to impact on those retailers who have a presence in both formats which could in turn impact upon their whole business. Companies being taxed at both ends, in the real and virtual worlds, isn’t going to be a recipe for success.

Do our town centres instead need to potentially reduce in size? Are they too big for the role they now hold? Although no local authority wants to be the one that reduces the size of their town centre boundary or their retail core – and therefore their rateable income!

Rather, there needs to be a realisation that town centres are not purely retail hubs. An increase in residential accommodation might allow a more focused retail core, but also more vibrant day and night time economies. By providing a good mixture of size and tenure, we avoid ‘student ghettos’ or build to rent apartment frenzies and instead drive occupation of those who crave an urban lifestyle, no matter what their age or family size.

This isn’t just about residential though. With ‘Permitted Development Rights’ south of the border seeing some prime office sites becoming residential space, it’s also a good time for shopping centres and town centre landlords to consider turning some of their empty A-class into B-class. While footfall won’t increase dramatically, it would introduce potential high-volume purchasers to the town centre who appreciate the convenience of the central location and add more consistent vibrancy throughout the day. Something the latest Centre for Cities report touches on.

Creating desirable, flexible office space in key centres would also allow businesses of all sizes to potentially flourish, in locations where public transport connections are good, opportunities to network, collaborate and share their successes with their local business community are greater. All important aspects for smart towns and cities of the future.

While footfall may be dropping, the town centre isn’t flat-lining quite yet. And with the right mixture of development, that’s carefully planned to complement that around it, I personally believe town centres can and will flourish again.