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Shopping Local

How we shop has changed since online shopping is available almost anywhere you live. It and other factors have had a major impact on our town centres. A committee of the Scottish Parliament has just published its inquiry findings, INQUIRY INTO RETAIL AND TOWN CENTRES IN SCOTLAND, and has made a number of recommendations to try and reboot our towns.

The report by the Economy and Fair Work Committee refers to the ‘decades-long decline’ in our town centres and has concluded that:

“every town in Scotland should have their own Town Plan, a long-term strategic vision for the future that recognises and builds on the unique nature of our towns, their histories and the community that brings them together. The Plan which should be driven locally and not imposed from the top down. The aim should be to remove barriers and funding sources should be made available at all stages of development.”

Anyone walking through the shopping areas of Kirkwall or Stromness will see many empty shops and premises. As the MSPs noted this decline has been decades in the making. Online shopping is easy and was an even greater boon during the Covid lockdowns. Many more people are even choosing to do their food shopping online and having it delivered straight to their door, avoiding crowds, queuing and transport.

But it has not just been the popularity of online shopping that has seen this decline in our town centres. Rising costs of products caused by Brexit driven inflation and massive energy price hikes have hit hard. Shoppers have also been impacted by rising prices and have to choose wisely, shopping around for best buys, or not buying anything at all. And shopping around can be even easier to do by going online.

Kirkwall’s empty streets at the start of the Covid19 lockdown in 2020 Image credit Kenny Armet

Even the great icons of retail like Jenners Department store in Edinburgh has been unable to withstand the change in shopping habits. Many people also now consider the environment and don’t wish to buy choosing instead to reuse and recycle, often by supporting charity shops – the only retail outlets increasing in footfall.

Kirkwall BID events and Stromness Christmas Shopping Bonanza are just two examples of what the retail sector locally is trying to do to encourage people back to in-town shopping.

Claire Baker MSP, who is the Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee commenting about their report said:

“This report should signal a line in the sand for how we support, develop and prioritise investment in our town centres. We all know a town centre that has empty shops, a lack of investment and few thriving businesses.

“Throughout this inquiry we heard that although the pandemic accelerated trends towards online shopping, people really care about the future of their town centre and what is on their doorstep. We heard about the positive benefits that a town centre can bring – not just economically but socially and culturally as well.

“We know there is no quick fix but unless we start now, then we won’t be able to halt the accelerated decline of recent years we’ve seen already in too many communities across Scotland.”

So what does the committee wish to see happen?

  • more support via DigitalBoost grants for small retailers for their online presence which Business Gateway have said smaller businesses are reluctant to do.
  • more support to community led groups with projects to regenerate town centres
  • Councils to have more powers so that they can levy an out-of-town development premium or a business rates surcharge which could then be used for town centre regeneration. 
  • all property and landowners to be contactable and there should be clarity on who the owner is to tackle the issue of absentee ownership
  • Although local councils have powers which they can use when there are dangerous/derelict buildings these are not being used. The committee supports the Scottish Governments modernisation of compulsory purchase orders and consideration of compulsory sales orders.
  • the NDR (non domestic rates) system rebalanced to support town centre development.
  • It wants to know how support will be provided to towns and communities where there is no BID and no local community resource.

To support town centre living, the Committee asks the Scottish Government to set out (1) how it plans to incentivise social landlords to take on empty town centre properties and to provide the quality mixed tenure accommodation that is needed, and (2) how the resource available in the housing budget will be made available for town centre living projects.

Despite the depressing image of so many closed down shops in Kirkwall and Stromness there are many successful businesses where people continue to shop. Wm Shearers, Bruces Stores and the Peedie Co-Op in Kirkwall to name just 3, are always busy and in Stromness, Argos Bakery and Fletts. Dounby, Deerness, Quoyloo, all have successful shops and out in Birsay The Palace Stores provides an essential service. These Mainland businesses all buck the trend and remain popular. In the inner and outer isles the local shop is a lifeline, not just during the Covid lockdown, but for the sustainability of island life.

It’s not just shops and businesses that are shutting down. Thousands of banks and post offices have shut across the country. This means going into town to the nearest bank or post office which would then have involved shopping locally is no longer happening. When other services close or are removed from towns it means people will not be visiting the local shops.

The Economy and Fair Work Committee examined 12 case studies to ‘show how some towns identified and tackled their own challenges’. They made the decision not to choose the ‘most affluent or successful towns’. There is no island ‘town’ in any of these case studies.

Were islands even considered? During its inquiry the committee visited Burntisland, Fraserburgh and Inverurie, Hamilton and Dumfries.

If there are changes to be made to Scottish Government policy to support the retail sector and town development, as this committee recommends, then an Islands Impact Assessment is required ( as laid down by The Islands Act). The costs involved in providing a local shop are much greater in islands where these are essential businesses – we saw that during the Covid lockdown. Online shopping is handy and important but waiting on a delivery (which can be weeks) is not always an option. For our islands to continue to be living and thriving communities the local shop must be at its centre.

Whitehall village Stronsay

Fiona Grahame

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