A Tale of Two Cities: The very different fortunes of Edinburgh and Nottingham – Donald Anderson

Edinburgh’s St James Quarter opened last year. That it is a triumph of city centre regeneration is obvious.
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The previous building was famous as perhaps the ugliest in Scotland. Even when first built it was unloved. I have written before about the influence of the ‘Forgotten Southside’ book, published just after the St James Centre opened. Its verdict was excoriating.

Edinburgh is, like many large cities in this country, taken over by offices, large department stores and the car. The St James’ Square complex goes to show that people are not important to planners. By 5.30pm this concrete monster is left for security guards to patrol.” Lots of Edinburgh residents agreed with the verdict, though criticising city centre offices and department stores rings hollow these days.

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The contrast with the new building could not be more stark. The St James Quarter creates a shopping and hospitality hub that is breathing new life into the city centre. In the run-up to Christmas over half a million people a week were passing through its doors, with many making linked trips to other parts of the city. As a result, Edinburgh has bounced back from Covid better than any city centre in the UK outside London. The delivery of Harvey Nichols and the St James Quarter – alongside the trams – has helped bring about more than £2 billion of investment.

That success was not a given. In 2008, and around the time the St James regeneration began in earnest by centre owners Nuveen (Henderson Real Estate at the time), the city of Nottingham kicked off the regeneration of its own ‘St James’, which was the Broadmarsh Centre, an almost identical concrete monstrosity to Edinburgh’s old St James. Harvey Nichols was proudly announced as the key anchor of a £750 million redeveloped Broadmarsh, which was scheduled to open in 2012 or 2013.

Whilst Edinburgh St James progressed through the biggest economic downturn in modern times, the many political trials and tribulations of UK politics including Brexit, Nottingham was not so lucky. Despite planning consents for demolition being secured, nothing happened. And nothing kept on happening. Nottingham's plans stalled. First one developer sold up and then the company that bought the shopping centre, INTU, went into administration, leaving Nottingham with a gaping wound in its city centre and huge gaps in its shopping offer.

It was not just Harvey Nichols that fell by the wayside. Residents said in polls that they wanted Apple, Lego, Hollisters and Selfridges in the city centre, but none have been delivered. Plans to create a park-themed attraction out of the ruins of the long-closed shopping centre have foundered as, sadly, a ‘Levelling Up’ funding bid failed to attract government support this year.

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Edinburgh used to be known as a place where nothing happened and where the central gap sites lay empty. That is no longer true and Edinburgh’s city centre is thriving again. That did not happen by accident. Those planners that were berated for not thinking “people were important” have, alongside politicians across the political spectrum and developers including Nuveen, delivered a city centre that is a model for others to follow. If you doubt that is true, just consider what happened in Nottingham to understand this modern ‘Tale of Two Cities’.

Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh City Council