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Why we need healthy high streets

IT has not been the best start to 2013 for Scotland's high streets.

Weeks after the dawn of the New Year, three major chains announced they had gone into administration, placing thousands of jobs and hundreds of shops under threat. While the retail sector has been facing precarious conditions for some time, the collapse of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster has raised fresh fears over the future of town centres.

It could be argued there is little sign of hope on the horizon, with the economic gloom continuing and shoppers rapidly adjusting to opportunities to purchase at the click of the button on their mobiles and the internet.

The traditional bricks-and-mortar model of retailing is no longer as viable as it once was and even major chains which survive the current crisis are considering drastically reducing their presence on the high street. Experts have warned the number of empty shops across Scotland could soon double to as many as 40,000.

The review of Scotland's town centres being undertaken on behalf of the Scottish Government is therefore welcome.

Chaired by architect Malcolm Fraser and involving experts drawn from fields ranging from retail and business to the arts and leisure, one key element is that it is not just focusing on high streets as places to shop.

The first report of the group is due to published this spring, with ideas such as making sure public institutions do not move out of town, tweaking planning principles to bring in facilities such sports centres and encouraging more local businesses into town centres under discussion.

What is important is that any plan to breathe life back in Scotland's town centres is backed with action to make it happen.

The UK Government supported a series of recommendations of a review carried out by retail guru Mary Portas, with 15 pilot areas in England awarded £100,000 each last year as part of efforts to rejuvenate the high streets.

Whether such initiatives will be enough in the face of many retailers collapsing in rapid succession remains to be seen.

Towns and cities will always undergo change and there is no going back to the high streets of the past, whatever form they may have taken.

There has been some concern in recent years about the "cloning" of town centres, with virtually identical chain stores opening in towns and cities across the country.

An injection of diversity into the high street could be a positive to balance the problems the new landscape throws up.

In her review, Mary Portas pointed out that a thriving high street is essential to creating and fostering a sense of "belonging and community".

That sense of community will not be encouraged by boarded up shops and empty neglected buildings.

Contextual targeting label: 
retail

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