A Tale of Two Capitals?

Over the last couple of weekends I have been in Edinburgh and London, and for various reasons spent some time in arguably the two major off-centre shopping centres in each city – the Gyle in Edinburgh and Westfield Stratford in London.

Now London can not be compared really to Edinburgh – insert your own reasons and biases here – but the comparison between the two shopping centres was stark.

Westfield is new, built in part I suppose to be part of the regeneration Olympic Legacy.  When we were there it was heaving with people, all shops taken and some interesting new entrants and experimentation going on. The unit size is quite distinctive in parts and retailers have responded by doing a few slightly different things. It looks and feels very new, which you’d expect as it is. It is really big, which can be off-putting, though it has its own app to guide you round if you get lost.

Crucially, it is also at the heart of a network of public transport involving rail, underground and bus.

Gyle on the other hand (and it was the same day of the week) was reasonably busy, but is now clearly showing its age (it was opened nineteen year ago last week).  It has some bus links but is dependent on car traffic. You can though see the tram works clearly enough (though that is true of much of Edinburgh).

Most striking however was the level of vacancy in the centre.  I counted eight empty units and it is beginning to give off a problematic air, especially when it is the not a huge mall by today’s standards.  Maybe there’ll be Christmas pop-ups to fill in the gaps, as has happened in recent years.

We are not comparing like with like, whether in newness, connectivity, scale or market on which to draw. My comparison is clearly not a fair or reasonable one, but it does serve to pose some questions about the future of shopping centers in Scotland:

  • Is newness the main difference here? And if so what does this mean for Edinburgh in terms of retail policy and future development?
  • Is this difference a reflection instead of the London/Rest of the UK split? This is really visible in things like vacancy reports and retail sales data? Does this imply Scotland is going to have to put up with “lesser” quality retailing for some time?
  • How critical is building in strong transport links to all our off-centre developments (and not just retailing)? Should this be a stronger condition of permission or redevelopment of sites, given the obvious benefits derived?
  • How should or could the Gyle be renewed to perform a suitable function? Must this entail retail expansion here or should we be considering an alternative use and a new start elsewhere?
  • More generally, as our shopping centres age what are we going to do about them, or are we willing to accept the blight we see across US cities on arterial roads?

Much, rightly, is being made at this time of the plight of the high street and the wider nature of the town centre, but we might spare a thought for the underperforming off-centre assets that places have. How might we re-use or re-energise these, rather than thinking about adding new build elsewhere to the problem? And this time, how might we make them more accessible to all?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Closure, Design, Olympics, Retail Economy, Retail Planning, Shopping Centres and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Tale of Two Capitals?

  1. Mhairi Donaghy says:

    I’ve been wondering for some time how long it will be before we see a strong case being put forward for a Shopping Centre Renewal Fund? You could make a very strong economic case on the grounds of sustaining jobs and businesses, but any justification would fall down on transport and accessibility. What chances for a sustainable approach of renew and refresh rather than abandon and build shiny new places? Hmmmm, I’ll not hold my breath.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Indeed. But if we were able to adjust the costs of building new as opposed to renewing existing, to favour the latter, might we see a different mind set? Certainly applies to town centres for example.

  3. Liegh the critical aspect of Westfield is that it is another one of those giant rip-offs perpretated on the long-suffering UK tax payer. The Australian interest was enthusiastically welomed and faciltiated into a immens-futue-value-to-be-unlocked developemnt prospect mad possibel by public investment. The massive UK Governemnts’ (plural) massive serial investment in the ‘Lonodn’ Olympics was the sheet anchor that gauranteed all. The UK tax payer has got, and wuill get, relatively little so fa as I can see out of the value that has been unlocked and will be unlocked.

    On your comparison of ‘London and the rest’, I cavil a little. I rather tend to the ‘economic geoghraphy’ perspective suggested by Doc Mark Roberts and others. That is a perspective with a limited (possibly diminishing?) number of locales across the UK that have got what it takes in terms of a market catchment and quality to interest retail investment funds. London is, of course, inlcuded in that elite, but it’s not the only one.

    A couple of ideas run off in my mind from that. One is that I have always thought that Gyles is a crap venue – yet Edinburgh, arguably, belongs in that elite of attractive market prospects. So, for me, it’s the crap venue that’s the issue.

    There again, on the mega-games-impact theme – the jury’s still out is it not ?

    And Mhairi, with the greatest of respect, please not another fund in the form of a ‘Shopping Centre Renewal Fund’. The Town Centres Regeneration Fund, for all it was welcomed, was yet another example of a piecemeal, under-invested, ill-focused and populist exercise little related to other policy.

    Has any analysis or audit, or even just review, ever been carried out on just how much public funds have been expended on such initiatives and who benefited and how/why?

    In the short series of Chatham House lunches that I organised for the Scottish Government and SURF as part of the Regeneration strategy consultation in 2011, private sector development interests and practitioners were much exercised about the lack of appropriate feasibility studies and better viability testing to inform decision-making on the prioritisation of public investment across the piece (paper available for free).

    The initial omens were not promising on the latest ‘Review of Town Centres’. Let’s hope that does not turn out to be another ultimately ineffectual exercise, before we embark on the setting up of even more funds of the same ilk to similar effect.

    I’m off to take a slurp out of the glass-half-full to rejuvenate the positive.

    • Mhairi Donaghy says:

      Edward, my tongue was firmly in my cheek at the Shopping Centre Renewal Fund, but how surprised would you be if it happened? Totally agree about the TCRF approach but (as you know better than most) we are in the political business of short term good news and no matter what evaluation or review we do this will continue. I could name a couple of similar funds that are active right now, but as a consultant making my living primarily from the public sector I probably shouldn’t ……. I’ll raise a glass to your half-full rejuvenation medicine.

      • Ah Mhairi that slurp’s done me good…

        Appreciate your tongue-in-cheek, and my pleading was in similar mode. I’m forced to agree that we live in a political world. I’m also prompted to say,however, that in the type of discussion that I’ve been faciltiating or particpating in more recently, there does seem to be a growing cross-sector dissatisfaction with the quality of the poltiical process and political decision-making (but I suspect that’s not just to do with Scotland).
        If we are to imagine (or is it imaginate these days?) what about a fund available to local communities of interest or business or residence for them to produce their own evaluations on a particular programme imapcting their locality? (I mean an evaluation with appropriate metrics, criteria and supported by requisite competent parties – not just a wish-list, or even worse a ranting or blame sheet). The late Communities Scotland seemed at one point to be going in that direction with the excellent SCARF fuding initiative.

        Think I’ll go back and finish that half full glass…

  4. Leigh Sparks says:

    Thanks for the comments. My point about London is that the figures I see about retail do point to a distinct difference in performance in London and parts of the South East as opposed to all other regions of England and the devolved countries. That of course is not to say that there are not investment opportunities outside London, but that the overall pattern of performance is heavily skewed to London. More worringly if people (politicians) only experience the “London effect” they may not realise how things really are elsewhere. On the “elite” point this is clearly the case and the reductions in viable locations (in the eyes of multiple retailers – and other investors) has major implications for many towns.

    On Gyle and its location I agree, but would you care to expand on “venue”. Is it what is there is the problem, or is it a viable site now at all to get what we might want?

  5. Leigh I always have to be careful that I don’t go OTT and come across as the Jock with a chip on his shoulder about the whole mess of the metro London politico/media/celeb/ international and dubious oligarchs. Suffice to say that, quite contrary to the endless propaganda from ‘British’ institutions, I suspect that the London factor has, on the whole, long had a negative and significantly dysfunctionaI impact on the whole of the UK.

    (Q: Is London any longer a ‘British’ city or now a globalised metropolis, with the primary purpose of servicing the needs of globalised elites?)

    On the Gyle as a venue. As the man says ‘it all depends’. In using the term crap I was specifically aiming at the centre itself and what always was for me an uninviting, incoherent place with a failed or non-existent ambience… what image was it trying to project… what was it doing, who was it for… did the proprietors know?

    But your question also prompted thoughts on the location in which the centre is located. As a non-Edinburgher I haven’t got the sense that the location is the problem – there again the challenge in retail, entertainment and leisure is always to identify – or to create – the optimum mix of function, offer and location.

    Again as a non-Edinburgher, and as a South Lanarkshire long-time resident, I do wonder if Edinburgh ‘has a problem’ on matters retail – and on capitalising on its attractive image as… well as a capital? E.g. some of the synthetic tartan dross purveyed on the Royal Mile or Nicholson Street? Industry anecdote has it that Harvey Nics made a strategic error in locating in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow – the (sometimes insufferable) Glasgow gallus and sheer joie de vivre better provides a ready and hungry consumer for the Harvey Nics of this world (and as can be seen on any busy buying weekend, it would also seem that a heck of a lot of incoming consumers from Edinburgh are subject to the pull of Glasgow retail).

    (I still haven’t fully worked out, however, why the dreary and dismaying Quayside complex on the south bank of the Clyde waterfront in central Glasgow works?)

    There again, look at Glasgow’s Princes Square ‘mall’. Easy to appreciate the success with hindsight, but at the time reasonable folks will have seen barriers around: the-then image of the city; lack of access to car-borne traffic; high venue overheads and strong competition from adjacent attractions and facilties.

    So, as the man said, it all depends.

  6. Leigh Sparks says:

    For me London is a different planet to the rest of us and I would share your views.
    Gyle is an old-style (almost as it was built) two anchor/two store set up which we don’t see much of these days, partly because it is hard to get that sense of place or space. I do wonder if given the development around the site it can ever be more than functional? But perhaps there are some good plans out there?
    Glasgow vs Edinburgh; now let me see … I think I need more courage to tread there, but Glasgow’s scale and connectedness is a major plus, depsite the capital and tourist attractions in the east. It also seems more coherent and organised, but maybe that could change?

  7. Pingback: The Outs and Ins of Administration | Stirlingretail

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