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In September 2021, Johnnie Walker opened their vast visitor centre at the West End of Princes Street, Edinburgh. The building was previously occupied by House of Fraser. More veteran readers may recall the property as the Binns department store (and might even have arranged to meet a date under its famous clock).
Earlier in summer 2021, plans were approved for the conversion of the old Debenhams store at 109-112 Princes Street into a new 207 room hotel and hospitality hub, including a restaurant, spa and rooftop bar. Much has been made of these possibly being early examples of what could become frequent instances of Princes Street metamorphosing from a retail strip to a string of cafes, hotels, bars and restaurants.
Back in 2007, the City of Edinburgh Council produced a Development Framework for the regeneration of Princes Street. The report wanted to create a much-vaunted “string of pearls”, and laid out three development principles, the second of which was: “optimise the site’s potential through a retail-led mixed-use development”. We can see that the world has changed immeasurably in the intervening 14 years. Many would argue that Princes Street, along with many other Scottish towns and city centres, should no longer have a retail focus, and needs to be leisure-led.
Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review
When Covid-19 first had us all working from home, there was great speculation that this could lead to businesses reducing their need for desk space, with city centre offices being converted to residential and hotel-type uses. So, we have two potential themes: (A) a move from retail to leisure and (B) a move from offices to residential/leisure.
With those themes in mind, it is interesting to note that earlier in 2021 the Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review Group (a group established to consider how Scotland’s towns and town centres can be made stronger) issued its report: “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres“. There were three key recommendations, the second of which is: “[t]he Scottish Government should review the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that wellbeing, economy and climate outcomes, fairness and equality are at their heart”. What does that mean? The report fleshed things out with suggestions, one of which is to introduce a moratorium on out-of-town development for five years and to impose an out-of-town car parking space levy. So, no new retail parks.
The Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review Group report aims to strengthen and revive the centres of Scotland’s towns and cities. This chimes with the March 2021 report of the Scottish Royal Town Planning Institute, which sought to embed into Scottish planning policy and practice the concept of the “20-minute neighbourhood” – the creation of neighbourhoods where daily services can be accessed within a 20-minute walk. Both reports allude to the impact of Covid-19, with reduced numbers of commuters and increased numbers working from home.
Can the reports lead to policy changes that would encourage businesses back to city centres? Would that just be tilting at windmills, Sisyphean fighting against irresistible market forces that have already made their mind up that city centres, with their lack of parking and reduced footfall through fewer commuters, just don’t work for retail?
The Town Centre Action Plan Expert Review Group report comments: “there is a need to provide more space for people in towns. This will likely involve removal of car-focused space in some parts of towns and town centres and a refocusing on access, movement and spaces for people.” However, if the aim is to create a 20-minute neighbourhood, is it realistic that people will be able to do their weekly ‘big shop’ and make it back home without being able to bring their car to the stores?
Regenerating and reviving our town centres is vital, and must be pursued, but it remains to be seen the extent to which retail will have or wants to have a role in that process. While Johnnie Walker’s adverts might have encouraged us “Keep Walking”, a true “20-minute neighbourhood” could be a few steps too far.
For help and advice on commercial property matters please contact a member of the Blackadders’ Commercial Property team working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and across Scotland.
Andy Yule, Legal Director
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