How can UK primary shopping streets adapt and thrive?

09 Jun 21

Does this change of approach to Edinburgh’s traditional High Street signal a potential way forward for High Streets across the UK who are coming to terms with the rise of online shopping, further accelerated by the events of the past year?

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Edinburgh’s new St James Quarter has been under construction since 2016 and is finally due to open its doors on 24th June. By introducing a new landmark to Edinburgh’s world-famous skyline (Walnut Whip anyone?), it undeniably creates a unique destination within central Edinburgh. But what does the provision of over 850,000 sqft of new top-end retail, food and leisure floorspace mean for the future of Edinburgh’s traditional High Street, Princes Street?

Princes Street, like many other principal shopping streets throughout the UK, has long been protected in planning policy for retail uses – the rationale for this being that, should other uses be introduced, the special retail character of the area would become diluted.

It is likely the new St James Quarter will serve to attract many fresh names entering Edinburgh’s retail scene away from Princes Street (retailers such as Peloton, Pull & Bear, and Stradivarius have already taken space in the new Quarter), whilst some established Princes Street occupiers have also committed to the new facility.

In anticipation of this, City of Edinburgh Council’s seemingly proactive response was to introduce revised guidance for its City Centre Retail Core. This guidance provides greater flexibility in terms of potential alternative uses for formerly ‘retail only’ units, with specific provision made for complementary uses including leisure and evening economy. High-profile examples of this change in policy direction can be seen in the new Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience (formerly House of Fraser), and L&G’s recently approved new boutique hotel and hospitality hub (formerly Debenhams).

Does this change of approach to Edinburgh’s traditional High Street signal a potential way forward for High Streets across the UK who are coming to terms with the rise of online shopping, further accelerated by the events of the past year?

The move away from retail-only environments to a more ‘complete’ town centre experience offering a range of attractions and activities for locals and tourists alike makes sense in a lot of ways. Introducing uses which will increase footfall and potential customers for existing retail units will inject vitality back into High Streets across the country – many of which in recent years have become increasingly characterised not by the variety of retailers on offer, but by the number of vacant units. The introduction of Class E in England goes some way to addressing this shift, although there is currently no such equivalent north of the border.

It is a fact of life that successful cities evolve over time and adapt proactively to changing market circumstances. Other towns and cities should perhaps consider following Edinburgh’s approach in allowing for more flexibility for their traditional ‘retail only’ streets, creating more vibrant places and revitalising town centres across the country.

Adam McConaghy Senior Planner,Planning