Kevin Buckle: Shops must be given equal chance to thrive

Crowd-pulling events such as last year's Mardi Gras are not enough to stop the Grassmarket losing out to the city centre BID. Picture; Scott Taylor
Crowd-pulling events such as last year's Mardi Gras are not enough to stop the Grassmarket losing out to the city centre BID. Picture; Scott Taylor
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As we all know, life is hard for city centre high street shops these days, so the least they deserve is a level playing field. Shops on Princes Street and their immediate neighbours have a very high profile and pay for the privilege, but in Edinburgh the advantages go beyond simply paying for the best locations.

Currently Edinburgh city centre is divided when it comes to its strategy of encouraging visitors. This was caused by the formation of BID (Business Improvement District) areas that to a large extent set different parts of the city centre in competition with each other, rather than seeing them working together. At the moment there is the all-powerful Essential Edinburgh BID at the very heart of the city centre based around Princes Street, the Grassmarket BID which covers the Grassmarket and its immediate surroundings and then those areas not currently part of a BID, most notably The Royal Mile/Canongate.

The Lost in France screening will be followed by an exclusive reunion gig

The Lost in France screening will be followed by an exclusive reunion gig

It has been well documented and mentioned more than once in this column already that for several years now the Christmas market and Hogmanay celebrations are to the detriment of the wider city centre, but there is an all-year-round policy for those businesses in the Essential Edinburgh BID area to gain an advantage over their close neighbours. This is of course not the fault of those who work for Essential Edinburgh as they are simply doing their job with the vast resources they have at their disposal. However Edinburgh City Council needs to look at the bigger picture.

What was disconcerting, however, was to read in their last report that Essential Edinburgh regularly conducts surveys to show that they are “outperforming” neighbouring areas’ businesses. “According to respondents to the Edinburgh Visitor’s Survey, an ongoing survey conducted by LJ Research on behalf of Essential Edinburgh, tourists who expressed a preference said that the BID area managed by Essential Edinburgh outperforms the rest of the city centre with regards to: the quality of shops, restaurants and bars; signage; cleanliness and access by public transport.”

At the end of last year, businesses faced a triple whammy of negative factors reducing footfall and sales as figures were affected by the Paris terrorist attacks, the particularly bad weather and the closure of the Forth Road Bridge. None of this of course was mentioned recently when this year’s figures were heralded as a great improvement. I was interested to see the Grassmarket’s footfall figures for November and December considering the decline there has been for several years now. Surely given the improved circumstances this year there would have to be at least a small increase and hopefully the start of a turnaround in fortunes.

Published this week, the figures confounded all expectations. November’s footfall fell to an all-time low for the month of 92,111, a drop of 20 per cent. Surely though it would be impossible for December’s figures to have dropped. I was wrong! At 109,629, footfall had somehow fallen year-on-year by a further 4.8 per cent. While the official footfall figures for the Royal Mile are holding up – let’s face it, every visitor will take a walk along the Mile – businesses report that sales are not and the Canongate seems to be going the way of the Grassmarket.

We can expect nothing to be done before the council elections in May, but it has to be hoped that Edinburgh Council and in particular the local city centre councillors will do all they can to end this disparity so that all city centre businesses, not just an elite few, can look forward to successful trading from the summer through to Christmas and New Year. Of course they will also need to make sure those who do trade all year are not losing out to the endless pop-ups that appear in the good times, if any sort of recovery is to be achieved.

While somewhere like New York has many BID areas it also has an NYC BID association so that the BIDs can work together. Given Edinburgh city centre is only a fraction of the size it doesn’t seem too much to expect mutual support rather than an advantaged few doing all they can to press home that advantage at every opportunity.

Council has no plan and maybe no clue

I’ve never been able to find a list of what jobs councillors have previously held or relevant qualifications they might have but a cursory search showed the word “consultant” more often than some might be happy with. By the very nature of running a business, especially a retail business, there isn’t really the time and possibly the inclination to become a councillor. At the same time there is a danger that councillors think they understand situations when they don’t.

There is certainly a feeling among retail businesses in Edinburgh that the council has no understanding of the current situation in the city. Just because somebody goes high street shopping from time to time does not mean they understand the problems facing those shops and having an idea that people buy stuff online now and that doesn’t help really isn’t to know enough about what is a far more complex situation.

It will be interesting to see come May what skills councillors are bringing to the table given they have such important decisions to make in so many areas. One thing I would hope is that they know how to understand and question statistics they are given as it often seems they just take figures they are given for granted without any understanding or questioning of the methodology used.

There will always be some who see being a councillor as a step towards bigger things but there are undoubtedly many others simply there to do their best to serve their communities and in these difficult times we have to hope good intentions are matched by good decisions.

Bands gather for rockumentary

Lost In France is a new documentary by Irish director Niall McCann exploring the rise of Scotland’s independent music scene in the ‘90s, led by cult label Chemikal Underground. Featuring The Delgados, Bis, Mogwai, Arab Strap, Franz Ferdinand and many more there is a one-off opportunity to see the film followed by an exclusive reunion gig broadcast live from the O2 ABC Glasgow on February 21.

With a supergroup consisting of Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai), RM Hubbert plus the Delgados’ Emma Pollock and Paul Savage it is not to be missed and tickets are available from both the Cameo Cinema and the Odeon Edinburgh Wester Hailes at http://www.lostinfrancefilm.com/showtimes/.