SO, what are you up to this Easter Monday? Planning to do a bit of shopping, perhaps?
If this is indeed your intention, you should perhaps give some thought to exactly where and how you shop, after grim new statistics revealed just how much our high streets are struggling - and emptying.
According PwC, more shops closed in Scotland than any other part of the UK last year, with at least one pulling down the shutters for good every single day. Banks, fashion outlets and charity shops have been worst hit, as 366 shops closed and 254 opened in 2016. No part of the country is immune, with the worst hit area being Edinburgh’s trendy Leith, which came as something of a surprise. It now has 10 per cent fewer shops than a year ago.
Loading article content
And, as anyone who lives, works or shops in Glasgow will know, parts of the city centre there are suffering badly. The figures show there were 68 new store openings in 2016, but 86 shut down. A walk down the pedestrianised zone in Sauchiehall Street, once the city’s busiest shopping thoroughfare, tells the whole story: a litany of empty sites with only a few big names left among the cheap shops, made all the worse last year by the closure of BHS. And it’s a vicious circle; dereliction breeds more dereliction.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course, in Glasgow, Edinburgh or our smaller town centres, and the reasons behind it are complex. First came the out-of-town shopping malls and retail parks where you could park for free and stay dry. Then the web revolutionised everything again, in terms of pricing as well as convenience.
So, our high streets are doomed, right, since the internet is unstoppable? I beg to differ, and would argue that shopping is as much about social perception and behaviour as price. I still prefer going into town to buy most things. I like to see what I’m buying. I also like the buzz of Buchanan Street, the indie shops in areas like the Merchant City and the West End, meeting friends over a top-notch lunch, taking in a museum, gig or play after. For me, shopping is a social and cultural as well as a consumer experience.
And it is this type of focus that city authorities should have when they consider how to buck the closure trend outlined above.
Let’s go back to Sauchiehall Street. Ambitious plans are afoot at the other end of the road, including a particularly tantalising roof garden with walkway over the M8 and a £115m transformation of the north stretch, which is still a thriving mix of bars, restaurants and cultural venues, to include widened pavements, trees, seating and a dedicated cycle lane.
Council planners take a lot of stick, and often they deserve it. But we should give credit where it’s due, and in my view these plans represent exactly the sort of ambitious urban thinking Glasgow and other Scottish cities need to embrace to make it as easy as possible for people to access the places where they spend their money. It will be interesting to see whether any of this improves the fortunes of the increasingly grim middle section of Sauchiehall Street. With this in mind, perhaps a more ambitious approach to empty sites and stores is required, one that envisages social enterprises, culture and arts centres, maybe even some form of social housing. After all, culture is what 21st century Glasgow now manufactures and sells to the world.
This is important. If we can’t reinvent our high streets in some form, in 20 years they may not exist at all. They have been a linchpin of our history and culture for hundreds of years and continue to contribute to the life of the nation in far more important ways than mere consumerism. They surely deserve to go with us into the future. And we all have a part to play; so why not start today by putting down that tablet and hitting the high street instead.