John McLellan: Holding back Fort won’t save Leith

Artist's impression of the Debenhams store proposed for Fort Kinnaird. Picture: contributed
Artist's impression of the Debenhams store proposed for Fort Kinnaird. Picture: contributed
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Can Edinburgh really afford to turn its back on developments like a major new Debenhams store?

THE economic recovery in Edinburgh is hurtling along at such breakneck speed that we can afford to reject major investments which would bring hundreds of jobs to the city.

Former Evening News editor John McLellan. 'Picture: Neil Hanna

Former Evening News editor John McLellan. 'Picture: Neil Hanna

Well that could be one conclusion from this week’s decision by a city council planning committee to turn its back on a plan from Debenhams to build a store at Fort Kinnaird which would create 200 badly-needed posts.

At the same time as Grangemouth owner Ineos was revealing the stunning news of the petrochemical plant’s closure with the loss of 800 jobs, city councillors were finding reasons to turn their faces against a new department store which the best available figures show will have a negligible impact on the rest of the city. And what must they make of such a decision in Paisley, where the closure of another chemical factory was announced on Wednesday, with the loss of 140 jobs?

What Debenhams proposed was simple; a new department store on derelict land at the retail park which was designed to attract shoppers from the south-east of the city, East Lothian, Midlothian and the Borders. In particular it wanted to provide a better “click and collect” service for online customers and with the site next to the A1 there were no transport issues.

The main objection was the potential threat to shopping in the city centre and at Ocean Terminal, even though Debenhams is both a mainstay of Princes Street and by far the most significant retailer in the Leith mall.

It would hardly wish to do harm to its own businesses, nor is it looking for an excuse to shut one of the stores once the new outlet was up and running – they are locked into leases running to 2054 on Princes Street and 2026 in Leith with no get-out clauses.

Council officials have made much of the apparent downturn in trade in the city centre, citing a decline from 18 per cent of total retail turnover in the Lothians in 1998 to 13 per cent in 2010.

Those figures must also take into account the impact of the crash in 2008 and the chaos caused by the trams, so any forecast about the fortunes of the city centre must surely also include the growing confidence as the recovery gathers pace and the fact the tram work is finally, and thankfully, over.

So take a stroll down Princes Street or George Street today; there are no vacant units on either street and the latter has just seen the arrival of a major Primark store – and the Apple store is still to come. While nothing can be taken for granted, Edinburgh city centre is very much open for business now in a way it hasn’t been for years and the establishment of one medium-sized store on the edge of town (the plan was for a shop smaller than Fort Kinnaird’s existing Marks & Spencer) is not going to stop that in its tram tracks.

And despite its objection, I doubt if the company behind the long-awaited redevelopment of the St James Centre, Henderson Global, was really going to be put off by a new shop next to the A1.

Leith, however, is another matter. The concerns about Ocean Terminal cannot be dismissed lightly, but the last company to gloss over the challenges it faces is the one without which the mall would shut overnight.

Most of the 11 objections to the Debenhams plan were from Leith associations and there is no doubt the development of the port has hit the rocks. But Leith’s fortunes will not be improved by blocks on developments elsewhere.

Ocean Terminal was supposed to be at the hub of the creation of a New Edinburgh on the waterfront, a town the size of Dunfermline to where incomers would flock. The waterfront was to be teeming with new citizens, enjoying fashionable bars and restaurants and all linked up to the rest of the city and its booming businesses by a shiny new tram system funded by housing developers falling over themselves to build on the Forth Riviera.

We all know it didn’t turn out like that. Only a few houses were built, first the Granton tram spur along the coast and up to Roseburn was scrapped and then, infamously, the Leith Walk line to Ocean Terminal was abandoned.

Now the main land owner, Forth Ports, is turning away from housing and more towards industrial uses as it seeks to take advantage of the drive for renewable energy, while it lasts.

As one person said to me recently, the plans for Leith are now more Rotterdam than Amsterdam and that was not what Ocean Terminal was supposed to be about. It certainly wasn’t the deal when the Ministry of Defence agreed to hand Britannia over to 
Edinburgh rather than Manchester. How far away do the heady days of 2003 when the MTV awards came to Leith now seem?

Leith’s problems will be tackled by returning to a plan which involves making it a more attractive place to live, and better transport is the key to making that happen. Ocean Terminal was a mall development designed to serve a far bigger population than has materialised and the retailers know from their data that the majority of the customers are local. Blocking plans at Fort Kinnaird is not going to make people drive to Ocean Terminal who don’t already go there.

And if people who currently use Debenhams at Ocean Terminal would choose instead to go to a similar store elsewhere, that suggests a far bigger problem than blunt council attempts at social engineering can cure.

So what happens now at Fort Kinnaird? It is still saddled with a planning rule designed to prevent the building of another department store by banning any development over 4000 square metres, even though there are two bigger stores in the park.

The chances are Fort Kinnaird will stay as a “sub-regional” development without any significant new addition for the foreseeable future. How inspiring. Up the road at Straiton, Midlothian Council will be rubbing its hands. Don’t be surprised if Debenhams revives its original plan to go there.

No, that wouldn’t make much of a difference to shoppers to the south-east of the city who will just drive to a different location, but it does make a difference to the way in which Edinburgh looks at its opportunities and those who would invest here look at us.

And here’s the real irony; the impressive economic development convener Frank Ross supported the plan and spoke passionately in its defence. I’ve never met Councillor Ross but from where I’m sat he is a worthy successor to the late Cllr Tom Buchanan.

Cllr Ross can be satisfied that he put the interests of the whole city first and not those of one district. I’m sure the eight councillors who voted down the plan would say they did the same. I wish I could say the same about the outcome of their actions.