‘City centres must be about more than retail’

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MARY Portas could teach Edinburgh a thing or two when it comes to getting the best out of Princes Street, says Gavin Maclean.

It’s called the “doughnut effect”. It’s what happens to city centres when you build large retail parks on the edge of towns – you end up with a hole in the middle. The effect was first noticed in the US more than 40 years ago, but it is a problem now seen across the world.

In the UK, the amount of out-of-town retail space has risen by 30 per cent since 2000, whilst the number of in-town retail units has fallen by 14 per cent. As a lawyer who acts for a number of retail clients, I have followed with interest the progress of the Portas Review published by Mary Portas in 2011 looking at ways to improve our city centres, and the subsequent test schemes, the “Portas Pilots” which are running across the country. When the review was first published, it had a mixed reception, but it certainly raised awareness of the very serious challenges faced by town centres across the UK and, crucially, it has caught the attention of the politicians, who are essential to the delivery of solutions.

One of the key points coming out of the report was that city centres must be about more than retail. The reason is simple, and undeniable – in this age of multi-channel retailing, retail alone is not enough to generate the footfall that is the lifeblood of city centres. City centres will never compete with the internet on price, and they will never compete with out-of-town centres for convenience and parking facilities. So we need to create a centre that is more community-focused, or as Mary Portas puts it, a centre that is a “lively, dynamic, exciting and social place that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community . . . once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow.”

What does that mean in practice, and how might it help Edinburgh, and in particular Princes Street? First and foremost, it means all interested parties must work together. The public sector cannot deliver solutions on its own, no more than the private sector can.

There have been many reviews of the city centre/Princes Street, going back to the Abercrombie Plan in 1949 (which recommended demolishing all but three of the buildings on Princes Street!). In recent years there have been more attempts to assist the regeneration programme, with initiatives such as Project Edinburgh and the String of Pearls project.

But the current schemes were prepared before the recession hit, and before the full effects of multi-channel retailing were so obvious.

So what are the lessons, if any, from the Portas Review that Edinburgh could take on board? In a response to the review, the Local Government Association commented that the best town centres create a “comprehensive retail, cultural and community hub. Future government policy must acknowledge this, not treating retail in isolation, but empowering councils to integrate the shopping offer effectively alongside other cultural and community services”.

At its core, the Portas Review contains 28 “recommendations”. Some which could help Edinburgh are, for example, a free controlled parking scheme, business rate concessions for new local businesses, a presumption in favour of development in the city centre, a National Market Day, and supporting imaginative community use of empty properties.

Edinburgh city centre is world famous, and Princes Street has one of the best views of any retail streets in the world and we need to cherish it.

I would like to see the local authority be brave and use the considerable powers it has, in consultation with other relevant bodies, to drive the city centre forward. The Primark deal is a good example of what can happen when all parties work together, and we need more of them please.

• Gavin Maclean is a partner and retail property specialist at Davidson Chalmers