With the liquidation of major brands such as M&Co and Paperchase, adding to the current group of empty units in town, there have been concerns raised by independent business owners about the future of the high street. Retail units have been impacted especially, whilst hospitality units remain, narrowing the shopping demographic in town. As a result, there have been calls for tighter restrictions upon which businesses should be permitted to launch.
Jason Michaelson, owner of long-established gift shop ‘Artery’, emphasised the reliance of retail businesses upon each other, with emptying units decreasing footfall in town. He is eager for more independent retail units to open in town, stating that “competition is healthy” and will help businesses to thrive. This summer is expected to be even busier with the aftermath of the 50th Open Championship, but Mr Michaelson worries that the high-street will not be presentable enough to serve incoming tourists. Established in 2004, Artery survived the 2008 recession, yet Mr Michaelson contends that the cost-of-living crisis is having a much more drastic impact on shoppers’ habits.
David Grove, however, is optimistic about the stature of the high-street. As Lead Officer on Town Centre Development for Fife Council, he explained, “St Andrews has had very low retail and service vacancy rates based on both the number of units and the total available floor plate.” The current vacancy rate in town is 8%, which is well below the Scottish average of 15 per cent. This is also a decrease from 11% in 2021 and the town has one of the strongest performance rates in Scotland. Mr Grove also explained that prospective and existing businesses have plentiful support available, not just from the council, but from the Scottish Government and Business Gateway Fife. Mr Michaelson, however, finds that the support of the council has depleted since the pandemic and shows no signs of improving.
Despite low vacancy rates, shop owners are still concerned by the impact of units still unoccupied in town. Sara Boardman, Principal Podiatrist and Head of Clinical Services at her business FootMed, has witnessed various changes to the town since establishing in 1990. She feels that there is a disconnect from the council, as she doubts that “Fife Council actually understands the way the town works”. Like Mr Michaelson, she suggested that the council regulate which kinds of businesses can be approved. Ms Boardman states, “we have enough cafes, we have enough restaurants – we need more shops”. The town is catering more and more to students, yet Ms Boardman highlighted that businesses must be developed which can survive during the prolonged holiday periods when students are mostly absent from the town.
Mr Grove also told The Saint, “We provide grant funding to eligible existing and new businesses for building improvements, whether that be for shop front improvements, internal conversion work, energy efficiency measures or digital solutions”.
This support, however, is not recognised by Ms Boardman, who says that the decision of the council to extend pavements and remove parking spaces has resulted in the loss of twelve parking spaces and a disabled parking space outside of her business. With many elderly and vulnerable patients, she has requested a disabled space be reintroduced by the council, but after seven months, is still waiting. She appreciates that hospitality relied on pavement extensions during the pandemic when social distancing measures were in place but feels that this business sector is unfairly prioritised.
In response to this issue, the Fife Council Roads and Transportation Service stated, “The management of car parking plays an important role in supporting town centre viability, reducing congestion and traffic fumes, improving air quality and improving access to public transport interchanges.” Mr Michaelson acknowledges the sustainability aspect of removing parking spaces, but like Ms Boardman he is concerned about elderly and vulnerable customers who are being impacted by this decision. With this removal of spaces, he believes that there should be initiatives introduced to combat this issue, such as increased public transport into town which would not only increase accessibility, but much needed high-street spending.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew