Kevin Buckle: High streets shops are in trouble the world over

Even in New York, there is concern about the 'death of small businesses' (Picture: Picture Donald MacLeod)
Even in New York, there is concern about the 'death of small businesses' (Picture: Picture Donald MacLeod)
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According to the headlines this week, the high street will face a perfect storm this Christmas and then all of next year and they aren’t talking about the weather.

An article about New York on the Vox website managed to sum up much of the problem in its extended headline: “The death of small businesses in big cities, explained. Not even shopping locally can save your favorite mom-and-pop — the problem is much, much bigger than that.”

New York always had the problem that no area could be “cool” for too long because that drove up rents and then the cool businesses had to move on, leaving behind the coffee shops and the like that had fed off the area’s vibe.

The good thing about New York was that there was always a new area to move to based on low rents. Now it seems empty shops are commonplace in many areas and high rents are the problem.

A call by the Scottish Retail Consortium this week to freeze business rates led to more articles and, of course, rates are just part of the problem. Interestingly, I saw a comment that “existing retailers, even those with a limited future”, should be helped, giving time for town centres to be repurposed.

READ MORE: Kevin Buckle: Support your local high street

This acceptance that some retailers may not survive forever but shouldn’t be thrown on the scrapheap too quickly is an important one. Folk are too quick sometimes to write shops off almost as if it is best to put them out of their misery when actually with support they could survive for some time yet and offer the diversity the high street needs.

What doesn’t help is all those with no practical experience having their say and often just getting it plain wrong. There is a difference between economics with its theories of supply and demand etc and what is happening to the high street.

Most worrying of all is the fact that Edinburgh will not have the empty shops other cities have but this will only mask the problem.

Edinburgh’s expanding population should be a good thing for retail in general, though the move to online shopping will almost certainly wipe out any gain. However the increase in tourism means that no shop will remain empty when there is food to be served and no larger building will remain empty when it can become a hotel.

READ MORE: Kevin Buckle: What’s so bad about a packed Princes Street Gardens

The first article I mentioned blamed the fact New York had been run like a business as part of the problem. In this regard, Edinburgh council suffers the same problem. There may be talk of quality and credibility but really virtually every opportunity goes to the highest bidder.

The elephant in the room – I know that’s two weeks on the trot – is wages. Generally shop staff are now paid more to do less. One shop owner likened a good shop worker to a good goalkeeper for a top team. They would have very little to do but when there was something to do they had to get it right.

In the end, people will do what they want to do and that is the most important factor for consideration. No matter how they treat their staff, people will buy from Amazon. Despite there clearly being better music out there, people will buy Ed Sheeran albums. Most importantly, many will buy those Ed Sheeran albums from Amazon. Such is life.

Plans for 2050 are all well and good and I do support the initiative but more importantly Edinburgh needs a plan for 2019 and, thinking further ahead, 2020!

Pot, kettle, black

As some folk will be aware, the proposed IMPACT Centre and the Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT) and their proposed music school share some personnel, so there was more than a hint of irony when this week those behind the centre complained that Martin Perry, development director of TH Real Estate, had sent out a letter encouraging objections to the centre which they said included some factual inaccuracies.

TH Real Estate owns the new St James complex and therefore will be neighbours of the IMPACT Centre. Mr Perry’s letter urged objections based on the scale and mass as well as the façade of the new centre. He also described it as made “entirely of concrete”.

A key issue is the height of the centre which will block the 360-degree panoramic views from the new W Hotel in the St James complex. Whatever the inaccuracies, they are unlikely to match the photoshopping debacle revealed last week when Adam Wilkinson of Edinburgh World Heritage produced an image he had created at a meeting to encourage objections to the RHS hotel that he later admitted was grossly inaccurate and put the hotel in a bad light.

Add in complaints that the new concert hall is unsympathetic to the A-listed Dundas House on St Andrew Square and the centre has managed to match all the issues faced by the proposed luxury hotel on Calton Hill. The big difference, of course, as my column pointed out last week is that while the hotel’s revised plans were refused unanimously, the IMPACT Centre has faced no such opposition and indeed had a statement of support from the Cockburn Association.

To be fair to the heritage lobby, it has transpired that the AHSS did object to the concert hall because of its “excessive scale and massing” so Mr Perry is certainly not alone with his concerns.

Hopefully the IMPACT Centre will go ahead in a revised form that its neighbours are happy with. Interestingly at the RHS inquiry this week Colin Liddell of the RHSPT and the Dunard Fund, which of course is partly funding the IMPACT Centre, admitted that the RHSPT was initially set up to “save” the Old Royal High from the clutches of the six-star hotel and the idea it could be used by the music school was “serendipity” proving the premise of last week’s column in spades!

Not only did Mr Liddell confirm my point in last week’s column that a small band of folk feel they know what is best for Edinburgh but he was clearly quite proud of it.

I’ve a Wizzard idea for Moffat and Hubbert

I suppose we are close enough to Christmas to expect Christmas albums and Aidan Moffat and RM Hubbert have not let us down with their Ghost Stories For Christmas album, announced this week on Rock Action.

Their cover of Yazoo’s Only You is already available to listen to, but personally I’m most looking forward to their cover of Mud’s Lonely This Christmas.

Admittedly it might be a more challenging song for the duo but I’m hoping next year they cover Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.