First came out-of-town shopping centres, then came internet shopping and finally recession: the challenges of the last decade have had a transformative effect on the Scottish high street by making it ever harder for retailers to survive.
Aside from chi chi suburbs with enough wealthy inhabitants to support a deli, a wine shop and a gift emporium, the bustling traditional high street, where adults bought their groceries and children spent their pocket money, is a thing of the past: that much is now clear. On many town thoroughfares the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker have been replaced by the bookie, the pound shop and the vacant lot. With one in 10 Scottish shops now lying empty, a marked increase on the same period last year, it further emphasises the need for radical new thinking about the future of our high streets.
That is why the Scottish Government National Review of Town Centres – launched last September and due to report this spring – carries such a weight of hope and expectation. The architect Malcolm Fraser, who is leading the review, has said he would like to see changes to the way rates are calculated and less red tape constricting the use of property on high streets. Hear hear. Crucially, he has also decried the lack of "friendliness" in modern towns where residents drive in their cars from their dormitory suburbs to business parks and retails parks, then back again. Agreed: the concepts of community and sustainability must be at the heart of plans for town centre renewal.
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The tricky bit, however, is working out how to achieve these goals. Ideas up for discussion include encouraging public institutions such as the local council to remain in towns where they are accessible to local people, and capitalising on local festivals. Crucially, a vibrant town centre needs people who are at leisure as well as at work; this might mean strategic siting in future of sports facilities. As for shopping, it is not the case that every vacant lot should be preserved for that purpose – that model of the high street has had its day – but coffee shops, bars, eateries, small-scale grocery shops and clothing retailers, among other businesses such as hairdressers, still have a bright future in our town centres.
To support them, a review of the structure of business rates is in order. Rates are not due to be re-evaluated until 2017, leaving many businesses paying what they feel is an artificially high level at a time when council tax has been frozen. Consideration should be given to varying rates. Such moves will not put more money in consumers' pockets or turn back the clock on technology-driven changes to the way they shop, but could help create a more level playing field between high street retailers lumbered with significant overheads and their online competitors.