Our ailing shopping centres need to become vibrant community hubs as retail diminishes

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Pick any provincial UK town at random and you’ll find a shopping centre that has seen much better days.

The empty units and sense of staleness that permeates the Mercat in Kirkcaldy is mirrored in the Kingdom Centre in Glenrothes, and beyond. The days when retail was king and acted as a magnet have gone. So has the footfall.

The big chains have lost since skedaddled to retail parks which have drawn all the footfall from town centre to out of town, and the units left behind can sit empty for years. How long is it since the shutters came down on the old Miss Maude’s cafe?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The challenge facing shopping centres is to survive without many shops - unthinkable in the 1970s and even 1980s when High Streets were bustling places - and, from the outside looking in, it does feel as though they have been slow to react let alone think out of the box.

An artist's impression of an expansion to the Mercat in 2011An artist's impression of an expansion to the Mercat in 2011
An artist's impression of an expansion to the Mercat in 2011

So, the news this week that one big unit in the Kingdom Centre was set to become a trampoline centre caught my eye.

The dark, dismal unit that was an armed forces charity shop across from where McDonald’s once had a unit next to Rothes Halls, will soon have a new purpose. Could this be the first step towards re-imagining - and possibly saving - our towns’ shopping centres?

The change of use from retail to leisure required planning consent, and with that in place, the family run XTreme Trampolining can start anew after losing their base at the Saltire Centre.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I wish them well. If it works, then other centre owners may look at how they can adapt their empty units and bring some much needed life back to their worryingly quiet concourses - an they have to do something different.

The Mercat is a miserable, soul-less place, the Kingdom Centre not much better. Both have to give people reasons to visit and it is clear the retail offerings are very limited in their appeal, so they need to pivot towards becoming vibrant community hubs.

Imagine a Mercat with health services, such as podiatry and even GP surgeries, and next to them a Post Office with citizens advice hub, and banking facilities. Instead of closing branches, why can’t banks come together under one roof? A financial hub for people who want to speak face to face with staff - could it work?

And open the door to soft play centres, and leisure ideas such as a roller rink - grief the old BhS is almost perfect for one - and look at the creative sector which offers an abundance of riches that could create a vibrant makers market as well as workshops and a place to showcase their products and talents.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Off the cuff ideas, for sure, and there are many more but they all need resource to deliver - and a willingness to try something different. If our shopping centres just carry on doing what they are doing then the law of diminishing returns will surely lead to the point where the last shop closes its doors and they become empty relics.

Centre owners are risk averse - it’s in their DNA as pension fund administrators - but they need to break the mould. I’d love to see the Mercat reinvent itself and lead the way. It could be - indeed, it must be - so much more than it currently is.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.