Blog: How can in-town shopping centres survive and thrive?

Bon Accord graphic illustration
GVA has been involved with the planning of the Edinburgh St. James’ development and the extension to the Bon Accord Centre in Aberdeen (above)

Planning expert Chris Miller on the challenges and opportunities facing town-centre shopping centres.

Recent headlines that the equivalent of one shop per day closes on Scotland’s high streets made for grim reading, but what’s behind this and, more importantly, what can be done to arrest this decline?

For a start, look at what types of businesses have been closing. Unsurprisingly the fashion industry saw the highest number of outlets close in 2016, with banks not far behind. The common theme there is the rise of the internet – people can easily manage money from their pocket or access thousands of items of clothing from their fingertips.

E-commerce has transformed the way UK consumers shop over the last 10 years and now accounts for 14.5% of total retail sales. If growth continues at a similar rate, then online retailing could potentially reach a quarter of all retail sales by around 2025.

It’s impossible to say when this growth will hit saturation point, but it is clear that traditional high streets and shopping centres need to respond to the threat from the internet if they are to survive in the long term. A number have responded by having less of a focus on pure retailing and offering something that online services will never be able to replicate, and that’s an experience.

Developments that people can shop, eat, drink and enjoy something recreational at are becoming increasingly popular solutions to get people away from their tablets and into town and shopping centres.

Recent examples of this can be found up and down Scotland. The redevelopment of Edinburgh St. James is arguably the most high profile of these and that will feature residential units, a hotel, and a cinema amongst a whole host of other attractions.

In Glasgow, the Buchanan Quarter mixes retail with residential flats, and the recently approved St Enoch Centre reconfiguration provides for a cinema and additional food and drink outlets. A planning application to provide a boutique cinema at Princes Square is also currently pending determination. And most recently plans to transform Sauchiehall Street, which has seen a dramatic increase in empty units over the past decade, have been given the go-ahead.

GVA are currently involved in proposals that have received planning permission in principle for the redevelopment of part of the Bon Accord centre in Aberdeen. The proposals could potentially deliver substantial benefits to the city-centre by creating a melting pot of uses and a high-quality public realm. The plans should improve connectivity between the Bon Accord Centre and George Street, and become a catalyst to reinvigorate that area of the city.

Aberdeen’s Union Square is also looking to undergo an expansion to allow for an additional hotel, expanded cinema and additional food outlets.

Mixing uses like this is in line with Scottish Planning Policy and its town-centre-first approach. It stands to reason that the more people you have living, working and visiting an area, the more economically prosperous it will likely be. This has been bolstered by mechanisms such as Tax Incremental Funding (TIF). However, there are still cities in Scotland that don’t make use of such methods – could Aberdeen follow in the footsteps of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee and introduce one?

Planning authorities must continue to prioritise this approach for developments which have the potential to attract significant numbers of people into town centres. There have been examples of local authorities sticking by this approach and defending the viability of city centres. For instance, Aberdeen City Council’s planning department recently recommended a major retail development at Kingswells for refusal before the application was withdrawn.

As well as online shopping, out-of-town retail parks have shouldered much of the blame for the troubles facing town centre shopping. Out-of-town sites tend to benefit from free parking, are easily accessible by car and feature modern layouts that are often more shopper-friendly than older town centre buildings.

Conversely, town centres can require considerable investment to upgrade existing spaces and improve public realms. Such sites are also often within multiple ownership, subject to heritage constraints, or are hindered by servicing and access challenges. These factors can impact on viability, overly complicate and ultimately derail development aspirations, even with the support of local planning authorities. Such issues make the prioritisation of town-centre-first development even more important.

Whilst older buildings in town centres may make it challenging to develop planning proposals, there is no doubt that the historic and social fabric of the built environment in these areas cannot be matched by most out-of-town sites.

Chris Miller
Chris Miller

Ideally, town centre developments should offer convenient and sustainable access to surrounding high streets, commercial and residential areas and should play to the strengths of being in the middle of a busy area through the generally larger local population, proximity of daytime office workers, employees, schools, tourists and the broader variety of smaller and often independent retailers and restaurants that are not often found in out of town destinations.

Developments that create vibrant spaces in city centres and give adjacent streets a shot in the arm are key to ensuring the longevity of in-town shopping and high streets across the country.

  • Chris Miller is a planning associate with commercial property advisory GVA
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