THE controversial decision of Marks & Spencer to close its long-established store on Aberdeen’s St Nicholas Street has returned one of the most pressing issues facing modern Scotland to the agenda.

It goes to the heart of a topic which sadly has become all too familiar, and perhaps more depressingly underlines the fact that there is no immediate sign of the predicament improving.

Judging by the way it presented its press release, M&S would much rather that we had spent the last few days talking about its plans to invest £30 million to expand its existing outlets and open five new stores in Scotland over the next 18 months (which on its own is a welcome development).

Instead, the focus has almost exclusively been on a key detail buried well down the document. Here, M&S announced that it will be closing the St Nicholas Street store, a fixture of Aberdeen city centre since 1944, as soon as work is complete on the £15m expansion of its outlet at Union Square near the harbour. That is expected to be in the spring of 2025.

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Predictably, the announcement sparked considerable disappointment and anger in Aberdeen, and it is easy to see why. Aberdeen city centre, notably its famous Union Street, has been in decline for many years now, a process hastened by the pandemic.

In recent years, the area has lost the Debenhams, John Lewis, Esslemont & Macintosh, and House of Fraser department stores, and felt the impact of a major downturn in the oil and gas industry before Covid struck. Union Street is today a shadow of its former self and while a campaign, Our Union Street, is reporting encouraging signs of progress, it is still in its infancy.

Local politician Kevin Stewart, SNP MSP for Aberdeen Central, has called for a taskforce to be set up to examine the implications of the M&S decision and for Ryan Crighton, policy and marketing director of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC), it is essential that preparations are made for life beyond Marks & Spencer for this site as quickly as possible.

With footfall in the city centre still below pre-pandemic levels, albeit average consumer spending is understood to have held up relatively well, it is easy to understand the urgency.

“The decision has been made, so it’s important to focus on what comes next,” Mr Crighton told The Herald. “This is slightly different to other closures in that we are dealing with a phased exit over the next year, which gives us time. We are also dealing with a retailer which owns the premises and has committed to working with the city to find a future use.

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“We need to take advantage of this, and I would like to see the local authority get a planning consent in place for the site’s future use before next spring to ensure that action can be taken the day M&S moves on.”

The decline of Aberdeen city centre has been mirrored by similar deterioration in other urban areas across Scotland over recent years, including Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, which knows only too well the impact that the loss of a major M&S store can have.

Some of the causes of this decline, such as the pandemic and move to working from home, the rise of online shopping, and in Aberdeen’s case the downturn in the oil and gas sector, have been beyond politicians’ control. But there is an argument that more should have been done to prevent the deterioration getting to the stage it has.

As has been widely documented, the development of new shopping centres in areas away from the beating heart of town and city centres over recent years, whether Silverburn in Glasgow or Union Square in Aberdeen, has undeniably had a major impact on the vibrancy of more traditional urban areas that should have been foreseen.

That is not to criticise those newer centres themselves, which through a combination of free car parking, major shops and leisure options in one place have devised successful trading models. It is just that displacing consumers to these locations ought to have been envisaged, and steps taken to deal with the consequences.

Making matters worse more recently have been policies ushered in to limit vehicle use which, while laudable in their own way, have made it more difficult to access city centres like Aberdeen and Glasgow by car, making them less able to draw people in.

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“Regardless of whether you are for or against the bus gates, there is no doubt that it has created a prevailing narrative that it is harder to get to the city centre, and that in turn is putting people off,” said Mr Crighton at AGCC. “For me, there has been a failure in communication which has left people unsure of where they can and can’t go.

“Every level of government in this country has regenerating our town and city centres as a priority – we need to see this ambition matched with policy making which is focussed on increasing footfall, because that is the key thing that is missing right now. If any policy is shown to reduce footfall, then it needs to be revisited.”

Plenty of voices in the debate around the future of Scotland’s towns and cities say the key to their future prosperity lies in persuading more people to live within them. That is one of the reasons why Land Securities is advancing plans to demolish Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow and replace it with a mixed-use development, including apartments and offices, and why real estate companies are targeting Scottish cities with build-to-rent projects.

It may be plausible that a gradual rise in the number of people living in city centres will help them recover their lost vibrancy in the years to come. But in the here and now so many of our urban areas are blighted by vacant units, vandalism and a general poor state of repair, and there is every reason to fear that will only get worse.

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The alarming rate of closures in the hospitality sector we have seen since the start of the year, with more and more operators being forced to quit the industry because it is simply too costly to carry on, gives rise to concern that the vibrancy of many of Scotland’s towns and cities will erode further still.

In this regard, it is surely important that government, at all levels, ensures the policy backdrop is as conducive to operating on the high street as possible.

Yet, despite the gloomy mood in Aberdeen following the M&S announcement, Mr Crighton believes the situation can be turned around in the Granite City.

“We cannot deny that this is a setback for Union Street - but it is one which we knew was coming for some time,” he said. “However, it could be a catalyst for the transition which needs to happen.

“Union Street’s halcyon days as a mile-long retail destination are behind it, so we need to accelerate the switch to a multi-use street which plays host to residential property, offices, hospitality venues with complementary retail. The M&S site will be key and could be the big intervention needed to stimulate that change.

“If a retailer doesn’t want to take on the site, then the city must take control as it is strategically too important to fall into the hands of a property speculator willing to play the long game in the hope the value will increase.”