John McLellan: Princes Street’s dry spell comes at the worst possible time

An artist's impression of the proposed Johnnie Walker Centre's interior
An artist's impression of the proposed Johnnie Walker Centre's interior
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Unless you are lucky enough to be a member of the New Club or the recently closed Overseas League, the chances are that of the many places in Edinburgh you have regularly enjoyed a drink, Princes Street will not have been one of them.

Hotels apart, pubs and licensed restaurants have never been a feature and while there are plenty of people coming and going after dark when the shops are shut, they are doing just that; coming and going from somewhere else.

So why have licensing board councillors declared there is an over-provision of alcohol on Princes Street when the opposite is the case? They have, it would appear, caved in to an increasingly puritanical health lobby which rather than address the NHS’s inability to deal with an ageing population instead seeks to shame people out of enjoying the things they like the most.

READ MORE: Edinburgh set to block new bars opening in city centre

Calorie counts on restaurant menus, health warnings on drinks, advertising bans on fast food, all seeking to save us from ourselves.

Now virtually the entire city centre has been deemed to have enough places selling alcohol and as a result there will be a presumption that applications for alcohol licences from new restaurants, bars and shops will be turned down.

And this comes at a time when Edinburgh’s shopping landscape is about to be transformed by the New St James Centre as it sucks a big chunk of the existing retail offer towards its covered arcades. The St James’ primary target was always the high street stores, so what becomes of the empty units left behind?

Princes Street is crying out to become a place for locals and tourists alike to eat, drink and relax while soaking up the stunning view, yet my learned colleagues on the licensing board have ignored the seismic change about to sweep down from the West End all the way to Leith Street.

Someone might suggest the shops should become homes for arts and crafts which don’t make more than a bawbee, but rather than our equivalent of Las Ramblas and the Champs Élysées, this decision threatens to make Princes Street look more like the set for a showdown in a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western.

It means that if the new Johnnie Walker Centre proposal for the now-closed Fraser’s store at the West End was to go ahead the only thing in its visitors’ glasses might be a drop of Highland Spring. Fraser’s did have a licence but what Diageo envisage is on an entirely different scale.

It’s not as if the Johnnie Walker Centre doesn’t face its challenges; internet images when the broad concept was unveiled in April show a grandiose mixture of the Scotch Whisky Experience on Castlehill, the indulgence of the Malt Whisky Society’s lounges in Leith and Queen Street and a brewery-size exhibition space and shop. Fraser’s it isn’t.

READ MORE: Johnnie Walker visitor centre set for Edinburgh’s old House of Fraser store

There will be plenty of readers who will rejoice that a spanner has been thrown into the works on the basis that a whisky centre is just another tourist attraction, but Edinburgh was to be at the heart of a £150m investment, with links to distilleries in the four whisky regions, in particular the Glenkinchie lowland malt distillery in Pencaitland which was also to have its visitor centre upgraded. Sure, Diageo could always turn its attention to the North British Distillery in Gorgie it part-owns with Famous Grouse producer Edrington, but you don’t need to be a Hibs fan to know Gorgie is hardly on the tourist trail.

Being the link to distilleries across Scotland, as far away as Clynelish near Brora, could mean coaches picking up and dropping off tour parties at a time when council transport policy in the city centre prioritises “a safe and attractive pedestrian environment”.

But not to worry, the licensing board is trying to sort it out. Maybe that’s what’s meant by joined-up thinking.