Edinburgh Council should buy in to new shopping habits – John McLellan

Princes Street should be bracing itself for the retail pull of the new St James Quarter
Princes Street should be bracing itself for the retail pull of the new St James Quarter
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Readers may be familiar with the Lothian Buses travel shop on Hanover Street which was set to be taken over by a building society. Outrageous. Surely the conversion of a small shop from a ticket office to financial services is an obvious threat to shopping in the city centre?

If that sounds crazy, imagine what the Scottish Building Society thought when their application to take over the shop was refused for that very reason. Under planning rules a ticket office is retail use and a building society is finance, and switching requires planning permission. And that’s where the problem lay.

The travel shop was between a Santander Bank branch and the Flight Centre travel agency, neither of them classed as retail, and Edinburgh Council’s rules for the main shopping area limit the number of non-retail units next to each other.

Sticking to policy, officers turned it down because it would have meant three non-retail units in a row in a line of six and therefore pose an unacceptable threat to the retail core, even though the previous occupant sold little more than bus tickets.

There was an appeal and last week a panel of councillors also rejected the application by three votes to two because it was contrary to policy. I was one of the two.

It recalls the 2007 decision to refuse permission for B&Q to extend its branch in Longstone in order to, wait for it, protect shopping in the city centre. Instead, B&Q moved to a megastore at Hermiston Gait and the Longstone site was abandoned until 2011 when, lo and behold, permission was granted for a supermarket and Sainsbury moved in. The result was locals driving an extra four miles to the nearest DIY centre, while a new set of lights was needed on Inglis Green Road to control the soaring amount of supermarket traffic.

While Edinburgh faces the same problems with the all-consuming retail monster of online shopping as every high street, Princes Street should be braced for the pull of the St James Centre and the council’s policies should reflect the reality of changing habits and circumstances.

With a car parking ban likely in and around George Street, an adherence to a narrowly-defined, rigid, retail-first policy will not protect city centre shopping but could turn Princes Street into a string of tourist shops. The Scottish Building Society might be unacceptable in the Hanover Street premises, but another place flogging See-You-Jimmy hats and blow-up Loch Ness monsters would comply with policy.

The same goes for the recently approved decision to refuse more alcohol licences in the Princes Street area, which could scupper the new Johnnie Walker whisky visitor centre now being planned by Diageo for the vacant Fraser’s West End department store. It might be primarily a venture aimed at tourists, but it’s a lot more besides.

Anyone who believes there will be a queue of retailers waiting to take up vacancies when the St James Centre opens, or people will stop buying stuff on Amazon because of council policy is deluded. Amazon is now considering a new approach to marketing which involves sending unsolicited samples direct to potential customers based on their previous online purchases. If successful it threatens not just shops but the entire concept of retail advertising.

In the opposite direction are app-based developments such as being developed by Nike and Apple where choices and payments are made by phone and plush stores are a place to view the goods and chat to staff. Those kind of stores will be in St James. It is tempting to describe current policies to manage the city centre as Canute-like, but that would be unfair. After all, Canute knew he couldn’t order the tide to turn, but instead wanted to show his sycophantic courtiers how even a powerful king could do nothing about the force of nature.