SCOTLAND’s beleaguered high streets can be transformed into vibrant and successful areas again by introducing just five measures to stimulate growth, according to experts.

With vacancy rates rising due to economic turmoil, academics say the blueprints for the country’s most prestigious shopping streets should be changed to encourage people to live in them instead.

Dr Allison Orr, senior lecturer in retail at Glasgow University says key to city centre recovery is offering firms incentives for investment to change empty shop sites into something else.

New uses for property above shops should be found, while old retail space should be turned into homes.

Retail centres, such as Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Princes Street in Edinburgh and Union Street in Aberdeen, should be turned into residential streets to stimulate growth and more community ownership.

Dr Orr and her colleague Dr James White, professor in planning and urban design have been working together over the last three years – along with academics from Sheffield University – to look at how we repair and regenerate our high streets.

Their recommendations could revitalise Scotland’s city centres and end the scourge of vacant shop fronts.

Yesterday, The Herald revealed how Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow has the highest city centre vacancy rate in Scotland, with 36 percent of its properties lying empty. 

It's part of The Herald’s Who Owns Urban Scotland? series in collaboration with independent, investigative journalism co-operative The Ferret looking at high street, leisure and venue ownership, urban infrastructure and city-wide vacancy rates.

The series has examined how Scotland’s city centres are at crisis point, fuelled by the rise of online retail and turbocharged by

pandemic aftershocks and the rocketing cost of living. In response, local and national governments have produced a flurry of strategies and master plans.

Now the Glasgow University academics have offered their vision of how city centres can be changed.

Dr White said: “We need to be less restrictive about what can happen in disused spaces.”

Since the collapse of BHS in 2016, research has shown that a fifth of the former stores – which often occupied large, prime sites – are still vacant five years later.

Examples include Aberdeen’s Union Street store, where in late 2021 the council stepped in, purchasing the building along with the former 1970s Aberdeen Market shopping centre.

HeraldScotland: The BHS store on Union Street in Aberdeen, which was purchased by the council in late 2021, remains vacantThe BHS store on Union Street in Aberdeen, which was purchased by the council in late 2021, remains vacant (Image: Newsquest)


Read more: Who owns Scotland's cities, high streets and urban centres?


The redevelopment masterplan for shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, is expected to cost £75 million, including £20m from the UK Government.

In Sauchiehall Street, the former BHS building is still vacant, dilapidated and owned in a tax haven.

Dr White describes vacant buildings like these as “blackholes, sucking energy out of the rest of the street. There’s an emotional impact.”

To get them filled, he says, we have to think flexibly, incentivising leisure uses where there’s no demand for retail – from cinemas to bowling – with hotels, restaurants and bars an important part of the mix. “We need to be less restrictive about what can happen in disused spaces,” he says.

He and Dr Orr agree knowledge of ownership is key.

Their Repair research team recommended the city councils keep property owners databases to monitor empty properties and record . “creeping changes” undermining city centre vitality.

Dr Orr says town centre investment zones should be considered where key areas are identified and support – conditional on regeneration – is available for businesses to work together on plans that both benefit them and the local community.

But Dr Orr insists that it is not just about ground level.

She explains: “At one time you would have had whole units let out as one. But retailers no longer want that so these are sitting there empty.”

Councils, she says, lose out because they cannot claim business rates, and The Herald investigation found vacancy rates included empty flats above shops in cities across the country.

In global centres like London or New York these could be plush architects offices or creative industry hubs, says Dr White.

But in Scotland, the finance required for refurbishment makes that unlikely.

He added: "So this is partly about a local and central government response and the part they can play.

“I don’t think the market can solve all the problems of an area like this without government investment.”

In Edinburgh luxury offices and flats have already been developed above some retail spaces on Princes Street with “panoramic views” of the castle and prices are on application.

But it is not just about the high end of the market, says Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser.

He points to the city’s Argyle House – a former government building turned-thriving commercial office space and infamous eyesore – as a model for the way old buildings could be repurposed sustainably.

He said: "The city is an ecosystem and building uses change. What we need to do is focus on creating places that are resilient to that change and can adapt.”

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser pointed to Edinburgh's Argyle House as a model for repurposing old buildingsEdinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser pointed to Edinburgh's Argyle House as a model for repurposing old buildings (Image: Newsquest)


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Mr Fraser also sees huge potential in the vacant spaces above shop fronts.

While Dr Orr and Dr White claim turning them into residential accommodation is complex, Mr Fraser says conversion to student flats would help address both the student housing crisis and high vacancy rates.

He added: "That would really help our struggling city streets and help bring people into our city centres”, he said, noting these are excluded from our current list of Scotland’s 34,000 empty homes.

In England units above shops are granted 99-year leases but in Scotland the standard 25-year lease made it more difficult to lease them.

In Sauchiehall Street, student accommodation is now proposed for the former Marks and Spencer.

But the old building will be demolished with a food hall below and student flats above.

Dr White said: "Universities have dramatically increased numbers of international students who can afford to pay. The population is temporary but brings life to the city centre.”

But city centre living is not just students.

In Buchanan Street in Glasgow, there are already several developed blocks of flats.

Dr Orr says that like many city authorities, Glasgow City Council has a strategy to double the number of people living in the city, “and the idea is a good one”.

But there are also complexities. Some streets can offer buildings with roof gardens, while for many others that is not an option.

The other problem is the lack of amenities – the schools, doctors and play parks – that neighbourhood communities rely on. This, says Dr White, is the conundrum for councils.

"The reality is that the plans [for city living] are developer-led", he said.

"Cities that have done this well – like Vancouver in Canada – have sophisticated mechanisms for negotiating public benefit from private development. The challenge is to work this out here.”

Dr Orr says this could herald the return of services – post offices, health or job centres – back to high streets.

She adds: "But it’s chicken and egg. You need the facilities to attract the people and you need the people to attract the investment in facilities.”

At the concert hall steps at the top of Buchanan Street, there is little street facing retail.

The shops in Buchanan Galleries, which opened in 1998 and owned by LandSec – one of the UK’s largest property owners – face into the mall, White points out.

Landsec’s plans to demolish the centre and open up a grid system with a mixture of shop fronts, retail, food and drink outlets, hotels and city living – are logical, Dr White and Dr Orr agree.

Dr White said: "There’s a catch. Before retail plummeted, there were proposals about three years ago to improve the frontage and bring it on to the street.

“But it would mean getting rid of these steps. That was very controversial because these are often used as a place of protest.”

Landsec didn’t pursue plans then. But the proposals highlighted how private and public space can be “blurred” when shopping centre owners develop city streets.

“Standing here it’s clear where the private starts and the public ends,” says White. “The doors denote that. But in these newer shopping centres, like the St James Quarter in Edinburgh, it’s less clear where the public ends and the private starts.

“Will Landsec keep ownership of those “streets” that they create? That will be interesting.”

HeraldScotland: Dr James White, professor in planning and urban design, says newer shopping centres are less clear in where the public ends and private starts, creating an issue around the concept of ownershipDr James White, professor in planning and urban design, says newer shopping centres are less clear in where the public ends and private starts, creating an issue around the concept of ownership (Image: Newsquest)


Read more: Who owns Scotland's vacant high streets and urban properties?


There are security guards patrolling Liverpool’s One – a retail and entertainment zone set in the heart of the English city’s existing streets, he adds.

“If you are a smart, middle class shopper this is not a worry. But if you use public space in a different way, then it could be another story.”

The perceived over-reach of private companies is one reason why an increasing number of campaigners believe that community ownership in city centres is part of the answer.

Dr Orr and Dr White are not so far convinced there’s a sufficiently sized city centre population to take that on.

But campaigns like Power to Change are calling for the UK Government to set up a High Street Buyout Fund to boost community ownership.

Nick Plum, the organisation’s head of policy and public affairs is calling for a £100m UK government grant, which he says could leverage £250m of private and social investment.

He claims this could bring over 200 strategically important high street assets into community ownership, adding “we need investors, communities and government pulling in the same direction to revitalise our high streets.”

In Scotland communities were given the right to buy abandoned, neglected or detrimental land in June 2018.

While no Scottish city centres are in community ownership, there’s learning from Dumfries.

In 2017 residents decided they were fed up with its vacant buildings and rundown high street. Arts organisation the Stove helped instigate the Midsteeple Quarter, a community benefit society set up and run by the people of Dumfries.

Prompted by the work of land reform campaigner Andy Wightman, Stove director Matt Baker says they “discovered that we effectively had an ‘absentee landlord’ problem like the Highlands and Islands.” The organisation now owns five previously derelict buildings. But they’ve met roadblocks too and been unable to buy the remaining three including one that has stood empty for a decade.

Mr Plum claims that despite the challenges, cities should now look to replicate the model.

He said: “Community ownership on the high street makes for more resilient local economies and communities, even in the face of economic challenges.”


Read more: Who Owns Urban Scotland? Controlling Scotland's infrastructure


Who Owns Urban Scotland is an investigation carried out by The Ferret for The Herald looking into the firms controlling Scotland’s towns and cities. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month at theferret.scot


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