Leader: John Lewis row underlines St James issues

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The vast majority of the 80 retailers at the existing St James Centre have agreed to move out to make way for a vast £850 million development, which will create new shops, restaurants, cafes, 250 apartments and a five-star hotel.

However, one tenant that no-one expected to move was John Lewis. The plan, ever since an upgrade of St James Centre was discussed more than a decade ago, was for the retailer to stay put.

John Lewis is the anchor tenant at the St James, the big name that draws thousands of people every day into the centre. Lose a fashion outlet or jeweller and few people would notice. Lose John Lewis and the game’s up. Instead of strengthening the retail offer in the east end, it would be considerably weakened.

But now John Lewis has strongly objected to a significant loss of floorspace (53,000sq ft) at the Edinburgh store during the development period. In their submission to an inquiry they state: “The impacts are unacceptably severe on John Lewis. Further, they will not allow John Lewis to continue to trade in the centre.”

It does, however, seem inconceivable that John Lewis would cease trading. The loss of revenue and jobs would be massive.

Far more likely is that the company is playing hardball to ensure that it receives the best possible deal from the renovation process. John Lewis is aware that the next five years will be difficult with the main St James Centre closed, and with demolition, construction work, noise and disruption adjacent to its flagship store.

What this episode underlines, yet again, is the complexity of the St James project. It would be far simpler to demolish the entire site and start again. But John Lewis needs to be accommodated and rightly so.

Just how that balance is struck will be decided in the coming months.