Kevin Buckle: We can’t leave retail crisis to market forces

Non-food retail is disappearing from the Grassmarket (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Non-food retail is disappearing from the Grassmarket (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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It was really sad to see that my old neighbours in the Grassmarket, Red Dog Music, closed down a couple of weeks ago, writes Kevin Buckle.

They were a great shop, selling all sorts of musical instruments and recording equipment and known for having knowledgeable and friendly staff.

While Edinburgh Council cannot control the entire retail sector in the city centre, it does have the power over licensing and, with the Grassmarket already designated an area with an overprovision of places selling alcohol, it must also be time to say that there are more than enough premises selling food.

I appreciate it is a big space but if it was allowed to become yet another restaurant, then really any pretence that the Grassmarket is still a place for people to shop would be just that.

Living Streets Edinburgh launched their Pedestrian Pound report yesterday, just a stone’s throw away from Red Dog, and I will obviously give it a good read and report back. The basic concept that pedestrians spend more money than those who use cars is not as simple as some would make out and certainly the relationship between footfall and sales is not what it used to be.

Footfall will often increase food sales in that people will pick up a sandwich or a drink but proper shopping, as some of us will remember, is a completely different matter.

If King’s Stables Road footfall ever does improve because of council improvements, it would be great if that involved some interesting retail which was the original council plan for the site next to Red Dog. I fear we may now just see another café on that site along with the student flats and hotel.

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

Clearly, while the council can do more to help, it is still up to the public to support non-food retail and while even those selling food now face competition online it is those outwith the food sector that face the biggest challenges.

What I would like to see though is hard facts and stats. So often I read conclusions at the end of otherwise impressive reports that simply aren’t justified within the body of the report. One figure I did see is that if you make a street more pleasant to walk down, then empty shops reduce by 17 per cent. This is exactly the hard facts I refer to but so often they refer to London streets and of course Edinburgh city centre doesn’t really suffer from empty shops.

The situation is now too difficult to leave things entirely to market forces. The Arches on East Market Street were touted as being the latest shopping hot spot when launched, but while most if not all of the food places have survived the retail shops have been replaced by beauticians and places renting flats. Not the destination shopping site envisaged!

READ MORE: Kevin Buckle: High Street shops are in trouble the world over

While Edinburgh Council may have a plan for 2050, I do hope that as soon as the Christmas and New Year festivities are over they realise that they also need a plan for 2019 and while the city centre transformation plan due to be announced in May will include recommendations for immediate action, even May is too late to start taking positive action.

Worryingly when the new Burns & Beyond festival was announced for the end of January at a council meeting, it was said that it came at a good time that was traditionally quiet for retail as if it would automatically send people into the shops.

If successful it will improve hotel occupancy rates and yes indeed people may grab some food while going from event to event, but to think that it will in any way automatically help many other businesses is just wrong. It would be nice to see a similar sum to the £50,000 that the council are investing put directly into attracting shoppers to Edinburgh rather than having events that it is just assumed will help.

In other news, the Coffee House which I reported had closed on the High Street and was rumoured to be about to become a Harry Potter shop has magically reopened again still as the Coffee House with a deal seemingly having fallen through. Miracles can happen!

Photographs that help you understand Scottish culture

Recently opened at the City Art Centre is the Robert Blomfield photography exhibition. Robert practised street photography across the UK from the 1950s to the 1970s, beginning in Edinburgh, where he studied medicine.

Timed to coincide with his 80th birthday, according to the CAC “the exhibition displays a selection of this stunning private archive, documenting the dramatic shifts taking place in Scotland’s urban landscape during the 1960s. It includes candid portraits and group shots, children playing amongst crumbling tenements, public gatherings, student life and evolving architecture, offering a rare opportunity to reappraise our understanding of Scottish culture at that time.”