Edinburgh's Princes Street needs a better champion than the city council – Stephen Jardine

“Princes Street is always evolving,” says Edinburgh’s planning convenor Neil Gardner and he’s absolutely right. In recent years, it has been going from bad to worse.
Princes Street in Edinburgh, pictured in around 1910, has always been evolving (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Princes Street in Edinburgh, pictured in around 1910, has always been evolving (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Princes Street in Edinburgh, pictured in around 1910, has always been evolving (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What was once one of the world’s great shopping avenues has been on the slide since retail parks first emerged 30 years ago. In that time, it has gone from being the address of the best shops in the capital to the home of Poundland and Kingdom of Sweets.

In October 2019, I walked its length for this column and came to the irresistible conclusion that “the solution for the future has to be different”. Back then, retail was failing and Princes Street was becoming a bit of an embarrassment.

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What a difference a pandemic makes. What was then a wind of change has developed into a full-blown hurricane.

Some shops fell victim to lockdown and closed their doors, never to reopen, while others moved into the St James development and put their hope in that. Those left behind look forgotten. Princes Street is now where shops go to die.

However, at rock bottom, the only way is up and there is a route back to success.

Neil Gardner was spot on, Princes Street has changed down the years. It started out as a residential street in the 1770s and no wonder. Just look at that view. The wide pavements, and that magnificent outlook can be the building blocks for a new future.

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The starting point for that has to be an acceptance that its retail days are over and will never come back. A few heritage brands may persist but the planning focus needs to shift.

The £50m redevelopment of the old Debenhams building into a hotel, rooftop bar and restaurant shows what might be possible.

Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen’s ambitious investment plans for the old Jenners building also give cause for hope. That and the new Johnnie Walker experience hint at a future based around accommodating and entertaining visitors to Edinburgh.

Leaving behind the tawdry tat and empty units, Princes Street could become one of the world’s great boulevards with landmarks cafes, outdoor tables and street performance to attract locals and tourists. Add in some residential and commercial office space up above to help the sums add up and you have a mix that is right for the world we now live in.

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To get there requires some tough decisions. Do we really want diesel buses nose to tail when the space could be left to pedestrians, trams and bicycles?

Are we prepared to deal robustly through the courts with recalcitrant landlords sitting on decaying units but refusing to budge? Have we the guts to pursue planning policies that honour the amazing grandeur of some of the original buildings and spell the end of the brutalist monstrosities that litter the street as reminder of the days when concrete was cheap?

What Princes Street needs most right now is a champion who will drive all this change and ensure a new vision for the future is delivered that is fit for Scotland’s capital city.

A directly elected Lord Provost with business experience and ambition would be perfect. In the absence of that, we will have to trust Edinburgh City Council to get this right. Based on past experience, keep your fingers crossed.

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