Kevin Buckle: Food for thought on quality of our shops

The nation's love affair with cafe-going is changing the face of our high streets. Picture: Getty
The nation's love affair with cafe-going is changing the face of our high streets. Picture: Getty
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We are a nation of coffee shop and cafe-goers. There are few things most of us love more than a pit stop for a flat white when we are out – and that is changing the face of our high streets.

With business rates very much in the news this week there is a part of that equation that is yet to be discussed and that is the growing gap in sales between food and non-food for high street retailers.

Madame Doubtfire -AKA shopkeeper Annabella Coutts. Picture: J Glover

Madame Doubtfire -AKA shopkeeper Annabella Coutts. Picture: J Glover

This is a UK phenomenon as people are happy to pay more and more it seems for their food while wanting to pay less for other things, or in the case of music nothing at all! Only this week it was announced that Scots consumers were buying “more upmarket ice cream than ever before”.

Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in the ever-growing number of takeaways. While the numbers selling hot food can be limited by the licence they need there are no such restrictions on sandwich shops opening and in locations where there is still a demand for shops a takeaway will always be able to offer more than almost any non-food retailer given the current trend and higher margin in food.

Add in of course that online competition for buying lunch is not really a factor and it is clear why as I walked from Haymarket station to the Grassmarket for the first time in a while recently there was a plethora of new and often “quirky” new food outlets.

Being quirky or at least different in some way is of course now essential as shops compete for customers. The last time I had taken that route there had been a new coffee shop just opened with a name that was a pun on the board games you could play there except there was a sign saying that as yet there were no games which of course just made it a coffee shop!

What needs to be decided is whether councils want to have shops selling “stuff” on the high street.

As happened with the rise of Edinburgh’s tartan tat shops, which are often owned by the council, will they just always cop out saying they must take the highest offer or be accused of not bringing in the greatest revenue for the taxpayer or will they be brave and decide the face of the high street needs variety if it is to remain appealing to shoppers.

Either a priority could be given to a business selling something new to the area rather than yet another takeaway even if they are offering a slightly lower rent or, more radically, should there be a difference in the rates food shops are charged so that it gives others a better chance to compete? The latter obviously would then apply to all shops. Depending on only council-owned properties to affect change would be more limiting, though still worthwhile.

As the Scottish Chambers of Commerce call for a “long-overdue change to the structure of Scotland’s outdated business rates regime” maybe now is the time to consider how this could be used to keep a variety of shops on the high street rather than watch over the endless march towards coffee shops and takeaways. Somehow I think the powerful food lobby would never let such an idea get off the ground.

Arrested development must stop

Any number of developments in Edinburgh have not ended up as first envisaged and normally it is things like arts facilities or quality of building that fall by the wayside. The hotels and flats always seem to go to plan!

Despite assurances this would not be allowed to happen with the King’s Stables Road development an agreement is still ongoing there long after building should have started.

There was a great deal of controversy over what stone was used for the new St James Quarter and Caltongate of course has caused consternation on a regular basis. There have been many more examples over recent years and from the new plans to replace the Ross Bandstand to the latest hotel application for the old Royal High School it is not just a case of people judging the proposals but believing that what they are being shown is what they will get.

Developers need to deliver what they promise and it would only take the council to make an example of one development that fails to deliver on these promises to make others think twice before they pull the same trick

Lost Edinburgh really is a site for sore eyes

I’ve always enjoyed David McLean’s Lost Edinburgh tweets and not being much of a Facebook person never realised how popular his stories of old Edinburgh were.

A couple recently were close to my heart, showing the building of Cockburn Street and a picture of King’s Stables Road long before the car park or indeed cars but one that proved very popular was a story I’d never heard about Robin Williams’ Mrs Doubtfire character having actually taken the name from an eccentric shopkeeper in Stockbridge (pictured above).

My tweet linking to David’s story had proved popular that night but I woke up the next morning to find a lot of renewed interest and then spotted the radio and TV presenter Nicky Campbell had seen the tweet and been recalling his visits to the shop as a schoolboy. Such is the wonder of Twitter that of course others then had their memories of the shop and the lady in question too who it turned out had been quite a character.

David’s pictures and stories are now a regular feature in this very paper and are well worth investigating. Often pictures that initially don’t seem of interest to me have a fascinating story behind them so I always make sure to read them all in case I miss anything.

You can find Lost Edinburgh on twitter at @lostedinburgh and on facebook at

Another twitter account that is always worth looking at is @YoorWullie. Just pictures this time with maybe a description or credit but again I come across fascinating pics every day covering a range of subjects but mostly with a strong Scottish feel.