However long the current lockdown lasts, it is clear that life is never going to return to exactly what it was, and that there is going to be a ‘new normal’, writes John Turner.
Thanks to advances in technology, working from home is now much easier and more cost effective for businesses, and many larger corporations are already reported to be looking at whether or not they will need to retain their large, expensive offices in city centres in the future.
The rapid growth in online sales over the last 12 months has accelerated the downfall of many larger high street “names”, which is going to leave gaping holes in many of our major town and city centres, together with the tragic loss of thousands of retail jobs.
On the other hand, there has been a definite and welcome resurgence in the desire of the public to shop in their local areas, and support their local independent town centre businesses, and we have seen clear evidence of this in Byres Road and the Lanes.
In the light of this, a group of leading academics, town planners and other luminaries have been studying the situation, supported by Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the organisation which among other things supports Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in towns and cities throughout Scotland.
They recently submitted their report on the future of town and city centres to the Scottish Government, and among their various recommendations are the following:
- A thorough review of the Non Domestic ( or business) Rates system. This will be welcomed by businesses both large and small, as the current system has many things wrong with it, and business groups, including the local Byres Road & Lanes BID, have been lobbying for a fairer system for a long time. In many places, businesses pay more for NDR each year than they do for rent, which is one reason why many larger properties on the high street sit empty for a long time. Businesses also feel let down and unrepresented, as they have no vote and no say in the running of the Council to whom they pay their hard-earned money.
- A “digital sales tax” (otherwise referred to in the popular press as the “Amazon tax”) to ensure that there is a “level playing field” so that the mega-giant online companies are sharing an appropriate part of the overall tax burden.
- A “levy” on out-of-town parking spaces. The abundance of free parking in out of town shopping centres has long been a source of irritation to those running businesses in town and city centres. On street parking on Byres Road currenty costs £1.60 per hour, limited to a three hour maximum, which gives the out-of-town centres, with their free unlimited parking, a clear advantage over the local area.
- Repurposing large empty shop units to allow multiple uses by smaller start-up and community based businesses, to help fill the large voids in town and city centres caused by the demise of the big name retailers.
- Perhaps the most radical of all, to consider repurposing larger office and commercial buildings for residential use, and therefore bringing more life back into town and city centres.
It has yet to be seen how many of these recommendations will be taken up, and how long it will take to implement them.
In one respect, Byres Road is ahead of the curve as we do not have any large ‘big name’ stores leaving a big hole in our high street, and we are already well blessed with our many small, independent shops, businesses and excellent hospitality sector.
In addition, one of the big advantages of Byres Road and the West End has over many town and city centres is that it already has a vibrant residential community in its midst.
So we will have to wait and see what develops. But whatever happens, it would seem that the future of our town and city centres in around ten years time will look very different to what has come before.
- John Turner is the Chair of the Byres Road & Lanes Business Improvement District. He and his wife Janet run Janet & John Scottish Arts & Crafts in De Courcy’s Arcade, Cresswell Lane.