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Footfall figures failing high street

Historians of the future will look back on the early 21st century as a period of revolution - a technological revolution, certainly, but also a period of accelerated change to the look and feel of our towns.

High streets are still caught in the post-recession doldrums. The latest figures show that shopper numbers in Scotland fell 2.1% this March compared to March 2013. While that represents an improvement on February's 4.1% year on year decline, it is still bucking the UK trend of rising shopper numbers.

That is a concern for Scottish retailers, who will be hoping the decrease will soon reverse. But below the headline figure, other worrying trends are in evidence, including that people prefer to spend their hard-earned cash in out-of-town centres rather than town centres. It is yet more proof that the high street, particularly in smaller towns, is in slow decline.

Online shopping and competition from out-of-town complexes was already taking its toll before the recession but the credit crunch turned many town centres into a parade of silent, empty shop fronts. Last autumn, after years in which more shops were closing then opening, the trend was reversed for the first time, but retailers replacing the lost shoe and camera stores were of a different kind - takeaways, discount stores, charity shops and bookies, creating a down-at-heel atmosphere. Many businesses are also struggling with what they feel to be artificially high business rates.

Reviving the high street is no longer about recreating a lost idyll - apart from in a few middle-class enclaves where people can still afford organic free-range meat from the local butcher, that has gone for good. But there is still a very real public desire for high streets that are welcoming, attractive, lively and individual in character.

Last summer, a National Review of Town Centres called for residential housing to be brought back into town centres, with public bodies made to follow a "town centre first" principle where they consider supporting town centres before developments elsewhere. It called for public institutions and leisure facilities to be sited in town centres. The vision is of more eco-friendly towns, with minimised transport emissions and old characterful properties re-used.

It all brims with good sense from a progressive planner's perspective but, from a purely commercial one, there are still significant barriers. Andrew Jones, the property expert responsible for out-of-town shopping centres like Glasgow Fort and Edinburgh Fort Kinnaird, this week declared that smaller town centres are unattractive to investors, who would prefer to stay with out of town schemes.

Large investors will naturally go where they sniff the best returns, but that does not mean all is lost for the high street. The Scottish Government has extended the business rates relief scheme for new businesses and is working to develop the "town centre first" principle. This drive must not be allowed to falter because high streets have fallen from the headlines, however. Today's footfall figures show that the Scottish high street is still fighting for its life.

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