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07 June 2018

Saving Scotland’s High Streets

ladies shopping

After 170 years in the business, House of Fraser’s plans to axe half of their UK stores – including their Edinburgh flagship – is, first and foremost, worrying news for their employees and suppliers.

It’s also another sign, as if one was needed, that the high street has to evolve or die.

We can be nostalgic for the golden era of retail in our town and city centres, but fond memories don’t fill cash registers and the future of the Scottish high street doesn’t lie at the end of memory lane.

Town centres weren’t built as museum pieces.  They reflected our lives and what we needed at the time – a time when we didn’t have cars, or fridges, or credit cards; and far fewer households would have both parents out at work. 

Today, more Scots are finding it hard to resist the pull of 24-hour online retailers or out-of-town malls.  As a consequence, local shops and big chains alike are finding it harder to attract customers.

They’re not helped by other factors like the banks closing down local branches, giving locals one reason less to go into town. Further, our public sector has been guilty of closing down local facilities – like courts – leaving empty buildings and reducing local footfall.

All of this leads to gap-toothed Scottish high streets that make our communities feel like they’re down on their luck.

So how do we reverse this decline?

First, town centres need to be great locations for all sorts of businesses, not just shops. That means converting some of our empty premises, be that a former branch of Frasers or smaller units that have been without a tenant for years, into buildings suitable for start-ups or office firms. It means landlords lowering rents and councils and police ensuring our high streets are clean, safe and accessible.

Second, independent businesses must go the extra mile for their customers. It’s brilliant to see local butchers offering cooking lessons and bookshops establishing reading circles. This hard work may have to be matched with longer opening hours and online sales.  

Lastly, smaller firms are vital to turning around our local high streets, but they can’t do it on their own. We need our politicians to put town centres on their agenda – in theory and practice.  We want more high street homes, and fewer public sector buildings on the edge of the city.  That might mean making some tough decisions when estates budgets are under pressure – but the ultimate cost of the alternative would be far, far higher.

Colin Borland is the FSB’s head of devolved nations

Lobbying & Campaigning from FSB

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