Graham Birse: ‘Small is beautiful’ must be motto

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If you think about it, one of Edinburgh city centre’s greatest attractions to international visitors is that it hosts living, vibrant communities.

There are few, if any, World Heritage Sites that accommodate residents, students, institutions and businesses alike in the way that Edinburgh does, enriching its appeal to visitors and residents alike.

And so we should be worried about recent reports showing the number of businesses choosing to locate in the city centre is in decline. The award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser shared his concern yesterday and suggested more direct action is needed by local and national government to reverse the decline.

Should it matter if some small businesses go to the wall or larger enterprises move out to Edinburgh Park or Livingston? After all, so long as there are markets there will be business failure and displacement.

Government cannot and should not intervene in business failure, to avoid presenting the taxpayer with substantial liabilities. It was only the sheer scale of the failure of the banks in 2008 and the consequences for the global financial system that forced governments to intervene. And we will all be paying that bill for a very long time. Frankly, that is not going to happen when a wee independent trader on Rose Street goes bust.

Nonetheless, we should at least understand what is going on in our high streets and create the best possible environment for businesses to flourish. And that is the job of government and its support agencies.

My idea of retail hell is an Edinburgh city centre almost exclusively handed over to tartan gift shops belting out amplified bagpipe music and offering a range of authentic gifts made in China. We need investment in business support, public realm, imaginative tax incentives and an enabling planning environment to avoid that scenario; and ironically we need look no further than Morningside or Stockbridge to see how independent businesses offering authentic brands or experiences can thrive.

We need to recognise that in most cases, the decision of businesses to relocate from the city centre will be made by hard-nosed finance directors and chief executives. The appeal of a convenient location nearby, with free parking, lower business rates and an attractive rental agreement from the landlord is clear to see.

We need an alternative package for the city centre, combining lower business rates, fixed rental costs, improved public realm and a sympathetic planning environment to compete. And the Scottish Government’s Strategy for Cities should recognise that city councils need empowered and supported financially to do so.

Edinburgh city centre remains a fabulous location to work, live or study in. And the quality of office life for workers in the city centre is, I would submit, better than that on the fringes of a retail park or motorway. Is that reflected in a more productive and satisfied workforce? Most human resources directors I talk to would agree that it is.

However, we need to take a long view and recognise that an outstanding city centre is one in which small businesses can thrive.

Graham Birse is the director of the Edinburgh Institute of Leadership and Management Practice