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Five ways to fix the high street

Once considered one of Scotland’s best shopping streets, Sauchiehall Street is now the most struggling. Dr Allison Orr and Dr James White from the University of Glasgow join The Ferret to talk about how we can regenerate our high streets.

It’s Friday lunchtime on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street and the accordion-playing busker seems upbeat despite the rain. People stride past umbrellas up or heads bowed against the weather. But, notes Dr Allison Orr, senior lecturer in retail at Glasgow University, not many have shopping bags.

This was once considered one of Scotland’s best shopping streets. Now these pedestrianised city blocks are home to a forest of ‘To Let’ signs, closing down sales and boarded up shop fronts.

who owns urban scotland

Yesterday we revealed it now has the highest city centre vacancy rate in Scotland, with 36 per cent of its properties lying empty.  The Ferret has been investigating Who Owns Urban Scotland, 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 turbo charged by pandemic aftershocks and the rocketing cost of living. In response local and national governments have produced a flurry of strategies and masterplans.

The Ferret joined Orr, and her Glasgow University colleague Dr James White, professor in planning and urban design, who 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.

We need to be less restrictive about what can happen in disused spaces.

Dr James White, University of Glasgow

1. Incentives for investment

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

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

In Sauchiehall Street, the former art deco BHS building is still vacant, dilapidated and owned – as our investigation yesterday revealed – in a tax haven.

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 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.

Orr claims we should consider town centre investment zones 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.

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Sauchiehall Street is Scotland’s most struggling high street with 36 per cent of its shops, offices and domestic properties now lying vacant. Image credit: Angela Catlin.

2. Find new uses for property above shops

It’s not just about ground level, Orr notes. We stop outside a now rundown but beautiful 1930s building, its second and third floors empty, though the shop front below is in use. 

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 can’t claim business rates, and The Ferret found vacancy rates included empty flats above shops in cities across the country.

In global centres like London or New York these could be swanky architects offices or creative industry hubs, says White. Here, the finance required for refurbishment makes that unlikely. 

“So this is partly about a local and central government response and the part they can play,” adds White. “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 isn’t 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.

“The city is an ecosystem and building uses change,” says Fraser. “What we need to do is focus on creating places that are resilient to that change and can adapt.”

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Argyle House in Edinburgh, a former government building turned-thriving commercial office space. Image credit: Magnus Hagdorn.

3. Use old retail space for city centre living

Fraser also sees huge potential in the vacant spaces above shop fronts. While Orr and White claim turning them into residential accommodation is complex, Fraser says conversion to student flats would help address both the student accommodation crisis and high vacancy rates. 

“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.

“Universities have dramatically increased numbers of international students who can afford to pay,” says White. “The population is temporary but brings life to the city centre.”

And city centre living is not just students. As we round the corner into Buchanan Street, Orr points out the protruding balconies of a recently developed block of flats.

That, says Orr, could herald the return of services – post offices, health or job centres – back to high streets. “But it’s chicken and egg,” she adds. “You need the facilities to attract the people and you need the people to attract the investment in facilities.”

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

Dr James White, University of Glasgow

Like many city authorities, Glasgow City Council has a strategy to double the number of people living in the city, she says, “and the idea is a good one”. But there are also complexities. “In this block,” she says, gesturing upwards, “it’s been possible to build a sky garden [a roof terrace], giving them private space… But for a lot of other streets it won’t be an option.”

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

“The reality is that the plans [for city living] are developer-led,” he says. “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.”

4. Create streets instead of shopping centres. But guard our public space 

We head to the concert hall steps at the top of Buchanan Street, where 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.

So 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, he and Orr agree.

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,” says White. “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.”

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.”

Five ways to fix the high street 4
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. Image credit: Jamie Mann.

5. Support community ownership

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.

Orr and 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 Plumb, 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.

Plumb claims that despite the challenges, cities should now look to replicate the model. He says: “Community ownership on the high street makes for more resilient local economies and communities, even in the face of economic challenges.”

All companies named as having tax haven links were approached.

Who Owns Urban Scotland is an investigation by The Ferret 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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