Feature: How town centre can avoid the '˜Mad Hatter effect'

Don't write a funeral notice for Kirkcaldy High Street in the wake of BHS's woes...yet.

Thursday, 12th May 2016, 1:30 pm
High Street, Kirkcaldy

That’s according to researchers at 4- consulting who maintain the closure rate of shops and businesses in Kirkcaldy town centre is actually on a par with losses at Fife Central Retail Park.

A fortnight ago, 30 staff at the department store - the first BHS in Scotland - were rocked by news that the 88 year-old firm had collapsed into administration.

While attempts are ongoing to find a buyer for the UK company people fear for the store’s viability - and the longer-term implications for Kirkcaldy High Street if such a large retail space closes.

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The Fife Free Press carried a nostalgic front page which listed many stores which have disappeared from the High Street over the past few decades.

It garnered some criticism but also proved popular with readers who contributed many more names - creating a list of 90 in total.

Not all shops had been shut down; some owners simply retired, some changed names, others moved to another location.

Just last week, Kirkcaldy lost the west end restaurant 50 High Street and the Anstruther Fish Shop in the Postings but we also saw the opening of Kuko Sushi and ‘Back to Natural’, an organic food shop in the Merchants’ Quarter.

Nevertheless, the people of Kirkcaldy ARE worried about the future of their High Street - should they be?

Kirkcaldy firm 4-consulting looked at the data and came to its own conclusions about the direction Kirkcaldy High Street is heading.

Director Richard Marsh said: “The High Street giant BHS hasn’t yet been toppled from Kirkcaldy.

“But its troubles, close on the heels of Tesco, have prompted obituaries to be written for the town centre. This is premature.

“To cover the full list of lost shops you need to go back in time nearly forty years, that’s around one shop lost each year.

“Compare that to Kirkcaldy’s retail park which has seen four businesses move out over the last four years including JJB Sports, Comet, Pizza Hut and most recently Homebase.

“That’s also around one shop lost each year.”

He continued: “Fashions change, technology moves on and businesses fail whether you’re on the high street or on a retail park.

“Losing an iconic high street brand, and much needed jobs, isn’t welcome anywhere.

“But we seem to reserve a particular brand of doomsaying for our town centre, even when the rate of losses are in line with the neighbouring retail park.”

Many smaller-business retailers have previously reported to the Press that business rates - set by the Scottish Government before the recession caused a downtrade - were strangling profit margins on the High Street.

Researchers at 4-Consulting acknowledge this and warn that the town centre, and Kirkcaldy itself, could suffer in the longer-term if current economic trends continue.

Mr Marsh explained: “Several businesses have moved from the town centre to the retail park but this is a symptom of a much wider problem.

“At the Mad Hatter’s tea party, in Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter exclaimed he wanted a clean cup and asked everyone to move one place along the table. This is similar to economic development policy in Scotland.

“It’s cheaper and quicker to develop new sites for businesses to move into, moving one place along the table, rather trying to redevelop old buildings in our historic town centres.

“But just as Alice questioned the wisdom of the Mad Hatter simply moving places around the table and never doing the washing up, there’s a price to be paid for our high streets too.

“Soon people will be able to drive to Kirkcaldy and stay in the Premier Inn, eat at Frankie and Bennys and shop at the M&S food hall, while never having to visit the town itself.

“But this means that people are less likely to want to visit Kirkcaldy, the aforementioned day out could be spent in any town, while Kirkcaldy’s most important buildings and assets may wither on the vine.

“The Next superstore brought together three individual units to create a new building, it’s difficult to imagine anyone trying to attempt this in the town centre.

“The ownership of the buildings in our town centre is too fragmented, developers often face a thorny path through the planning system, business rates for the town centre don’t reflect the market today and incentives for town centre investment often push businesses into the wrong places.

“Many of these issues are difficult to face but we can’t keep avoiding them.”

He concluded: “Only the Mad Hatter would think that continually moving seats to dodge the washing up is a long term solution.”