Frank Ross: Town centres at top of shopping list

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Vibrant town centres with attractive shopsfronts, restaurants, cafes and other businesses are drivers for sustainable local communities. They help to create and retain jobs, attract new investment and enhance civic pride.

Around 200,000 people live within an 800 metre catchment of our town centres and more than 25,000 people are employed within their immediate area.

No-one likes to see empty shops, so in Edinburgh we were quick off the mark to take action at the first sign that, nationally, town centres were starting to feel the impact of the economic downturn. This was happening due to factors such as increased competition from online shopping, supermarkets and out-of -town shopping centres.

We established a Building Stronger Town Centres programme and provided dedicated people on the ground to help local areas increase their footfall and create a buzz about their high streets. Our programme supports town centres in Bruntsfield, Corstorphine, Gorgie/Dalry, Leith, Morningside, Portobello, Southside, Stockbridge and Tollcross.

This work is obviously paying dividends as the economy committee heard a presentation this week which shows that vacancy rates in many areas have dropped even further from last year and our overall figure is almost half of the Scottish average. The town centre team has introduced some dynamic initiatives to add colour and vibrancy to these areas. A competition on Leith Walk brought a real buzz to the street and 35 independent retailers, restaurants and businesses participated in a free window dressing workshop to prepare them for a week-long event to compete for the accolade of “Most Improved” window display to entice new customers.

The team has also animated empty units, displaying local artists’ work in Morningside, Tollcross, Queensferry Street, Portobello and Leith. All of the vacant units except one at Lauriston Place have subsequently attracted new tenants. In Leith, a Shutter Art project has encouraged businesses to use their night-time security shutters as blank canvasses for six local artists.

High-quality customer service is key to ensuring that customers want to use your business again and again. The team organised training for 12 businesses in St Stephen Street to make the area Scotland’s first “World Host” accredited retail destination. This is a globally recognised customer service training scheme (one million people in more than 20 countries) and was utilised by the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Keeping our town centres clean is also really important, which is why the Building Stronger Town Centres team has championed clean-ups of the centres with litter picks, graffiti removal and the creation of authorised advertising sites. In 2012, the team managed Portobello’s first entry into the coveted Resort and Seaside Award and “Edinburgh’s Beach” impressed the judges so much it has been granted this accolade by leading environmental charity Keep Scotland Beautiful for the last two years.

“Town centres first” remains high on the national agenda and Edinburgh is committed to continue its activities to support the vibrancy and rich mix of our local shopping centres.

Councillor Frank Ross is convener of the city council’s economy committee