Car ban not a real solution for retailers – Kevin Buckle

A Christmas tree illumniates the Gran Via in Madrid. Picture: AFP/Getty
A Christmas tree illumniates the Gran Via in Madrid. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Recently I’ve seen figures quoted about Madrid’s closing of its city centre to cars last Christmas claiming it to be a great result for the businesses there

Obviously that interested me and having heard it mentioned at a recent council meeting I then saw the Forbes headline that closing central Madrid to cars resulted in a 9.5 per cent boost to retail spending.

The Belle et Sebastien T-shirt is a big seller

The Belle et Sebastien T-shirt is a big seller

This indeed looked promising if proper analysis had been done so I read on. “Twenty million anonymised transactions were analysed by the bank and Madrid city council, and it was discovered that the decision to limit road access to the city centre by motorists led to a 9.5 per cent increase in retail takings on Madrid’s main shopping street, the Gran Vía.”

So wait a minute, this wasn’t a 9.5 per cent increase for central Madrid but for one street – a bit like quoting for Princes Street but claiming it for the city centre. And then had any other possibilities for the increase been looked at? Had prices been dropped to attract business as happened in the UK meaning that increased trade might not reflect increased profit. It appeared not.

Later in the article a much lower figure appeared of a 3.3 per cent increase for the whole of Madrid, again attributed to the restriction of car use. Given that each year recently prices at Christmas have become more competitive and these comparisons were with the previous two Christmases this had to be part of the explanation, meaning the figure that could be attributed to the “low-emission zone” would be even lower and shops could easily have seen reduced, not increased, profits.

There were of course other more tangible benefits that everybody would agree on. Emissions of nitrogen oxide fell by 38 per cent in Madrid’s centre while carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 14.2 per cent.

However, the 9.5 per cent result that was quoted for Madrid for its main street at Christmas really has only a very limited use when trying to solve a city centre’s retail problems all year.

The irony here is that I’m a great believer in improving the public realm and understand its many benefits. I’m just getting increasingly frustrated that the very difficult problem of helping retail and in particular non-food retail is tagged on to these benefits as if it just simply follows that business will substantially improve when there is no well documented evidence that in this new world in which so much is being bought online that any increased footfall results in particular in an increase in non-food retail sales.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that any increase in sales is mostly made up of food and drink as those extra people grab a coffee or a sandwich. It is not difficult to consult with the shops in an area, improve the public realm and then go back to see over the course of a year what improvements they have seen but I have not seen one report where that has happened.

I should stress I’m not saying there aren’t any instances of success but I’ve yet to see one and it would be hugely beneficial to all concerned if such successes can be found to see if Edinburgh could learn from them.

Even more importantly the current holistic approach sounds all well and good but actually if any solution is to be found to what is happening to retail then it needs very specific attention which is the opposite of the current thinking.

An exciting and enjoyable shopping experience is still something many people are looking for and undoubtedly is a benefit for both residents and visitors alike but even when possible actions are identified by Edinburgh Council they are very rarely carried out.

I’m unaware of any specific plans to come to the aid of businesses in the city centre or given the control the council has, both though the buildings it owns and licensing, to create a healthier mix of retailers.

The Royal Mile Action Plan did address some of the problems five years ago but nothing was done until recently, with the banning of A-boards which actually harms business.

I’m well aware that much of what I’ve said here covers old ground but while those with influence and power to make a difference continue their current approach they are only storing up trouble.

Belle the dog has his day – but don’t tell the band

Opening up at Waverley Mall I really wasn’t sure what if anything the many younger folk there would buy. I was fairly confident they would buy Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters posters and I wasn’t wrong but what I hadn’t expected was just how many T-shirts I would sell.

Interestingly, youngsters of all nationalities have liked the shop so much they bought the T-shirt – so much so that I had to get a rush order this week to keep up with demand.

The second most popular T-shirt, however, has been the Belle et Sebastien shirt which has the 7in single cover from the well-known children’s TV series. Up until now sales have been very much to fans of Belle and Sebastian with a few people buying for the TV series. After selling several shirts I was amazed that such young kids knew the band.

Finally I asked two young teenage French girls each buying a shirt why they had chosen them. Both replied they liked the dog! Since then I always ask and the dog is way ahead of the band. I’m not complaining I’ll take sales where I can.

Now Newhaven is sorted it’s time to go west

Now councillors have approved the tram extension to Newhaven they may want to look at what can be done for those approaching from the west.

I’ve taken to getting the bus in to Waverley Mall and while the trip isn’t too bad because of the bus lanes the nose to tail traffic clearly needs to be addressed further.

The train of course gets me in no problem at all and the Glasgow via Shotts line is fairly reliable but clearly many feel the need to come in by car and I don’t really know enough to suggest what could be done. I’m sure others have ideas!