Kaitlin Dryburgh- 25th November 2022
It is no secret that the high-streets that we knew ten years ago are long gone, even in the past few years since Covid their outlook has been drastically altered. Changing customer habits, a further reliance on online shopping has put pressure on them like never before, not to mention bad management from the likes of Topshop. The trickle of shops closing have been as far back as C&As in 2001 to Joules this month nearing the verge of administration, up and down Scotland we’ve all seen a mixture of bargain, pawn and vape shops rear their heads in once what used to be hussle and bussle of the town’s high street. Some areas have been effected worse than others, Edinburgh and Glasgow have managed to ride the storm out a little easier due to their size and their larger appeal to tourists.
However, one of the worst effected areas has been Aberdeen, the third biggest city in Scotland has seen the same shops close their doors as everywhere else, but also so much more. Many major shops have pulled out of Aberdeen’s high street such as John Lewis, Dr Martens and now it looks like the flagship Marks and Spencer’s will also be closing its door. The inability for the city to fill the old shops, change the strategy and encourage new local and small shops to open up is woeful.
I would argue that although city centres like Aberdeen’s have started to look a little depressing as of late this leaves us in a great position to really change our perception of our high streets and city centres, what their uses are and how we value them. Wouldn’t this change to our high street coupled with our growing knowledge of the effects of buying cheap imported clothing be a great time to re-think our attitudes towards shopping and its place in our recreation time.
Aberdeen is one of the best placed cities to do such a thing, the decline of Union Street and its surrounding shopping centres and streets has been taking place for a long time. The amount of empty units on Union Street is sad to see, and what was once a very well used shopping centre the Bon Accord centre is eerily quiet compared to what it used to be. The uptake of small cafes and independent restaurants in Aberdeen has been much slower in comparison to other places around Scotland such as Dundee, and Aberdeen’s love for a chain restaurant is quite something. Growing up here it quite often seemed that not being from the central belt where quite often new stores and restaurants would open first before they made the journey up North meant that when they did arrive everyone celebrated it like the second coming of Christ. I believe that along the way Aberdeen lost its ability to celebrate the locals and not putting big businesses on a shrine, but hey that might be Aberdeen’s personality considering it is the oil capital of Europe.
In light of recent closures local groups and the Chamber of Commerce decided to put on a crisis summit “before it was too late”, I’m sure many residents would argue that ship has sailed. The summit was proposed as a real brainstorm to save the granite mile, where urgent measures both long and short term were needed, a new creative approach. The demand to attend the summit was so much that it was oversubscribed and had to turn people away.
However, the way the summit was advertised and the impression it gave to me as trying to create a clean slate on which Aberdeen could build a new city centre quickly came crashing down when I learned of the key speakers and panellists, first off we have a who’s who of property development from Savills, to CBRE real estate and FG Burnett, then an Aberdeen based jewellery shop as well as a bar/hotel, but to top that all off one of the key speakers was a delegate sent from Shell!
For a city that has for too long clung on to oil to form part of its identity and allowed for the oil industry to take and twist so much of Aberdeen into what it wants, why would we want to forge a new path for its high street by giving one of the biggest and most damaging multinational corporations a voice and opinion.
We’ve seen it time and time again in Aberdeen where oil companies are able to bulldoze over its residents and have their slippery hands in just about everything that happens. Yes it is a huge employer in the north east but must we make it our identity. With the likes of St Fittick’s Park being earmarked for the new energy transition zone, scrapping a valuable green belt for the residents of Torry (you can read more about this in Robin’s article), often shows that the council don’t see this as a city belonging to its residents but a large office for your Shells, Wood groups and BPs alike. Another example of this is the proposed changes to the Piper Alpha memorial in Hazelhead park, a rebrand in the name to the North Sea Memorial garden has angered the families of those who died, as well as the now plentiful donations from oil companies that weren’t there when the garden was first established and subsequently had to be funded by those families. This is quite clearly a branding exercise and an opportunity for oil companies to have their logos displayed in a park for those who died at the hands of their incompetence.
So why should Shell have a voice, where are the creatives, the local restaurants groups, how do we inspire a new city centre that defines recreation as a time to spend with family and friends, enjoying experiences, learning, not spending money? Of course we need shops, and it would be great if Aberdeen had a sprawling amount of local and independent shops, but It doesn’t seem that those in charge are truly considering this. We will never be able to re-create the high streets we had ten years ago, they are gone, our habits have changed and so must our thinking. John Lewis will most likely never move back into a big multi floor flagship shop in Aberdeen, so why not open this up to a collective of local shops and artists selling good quality products made sustainably and of actual use to the public.
Of course half of the issue is that often our high streets are in no way our own, and a recent report by The Ferret confirms just that. The report states that only a third of Scotland’s busiest shopping centres are owned by companies registered in this country. It seems that our high streets and shopping centres have become hotspots for foreign investors and tax havens. As for Aberdeen a whopping 54 properties on Union Street are owned by one company alone based in Gurnsey, with investors from all over the world having a stake in Aberdeen’s central properties. This of course makes it so much harder for Aberdeen to really be the decider of its own future.
So what has come from the crisis summit, so far not too much as it is too early to tell what the long term plans will most likely entail. Short term announcements have come in the form of a jewellery shop expansion as well as a restaurant expanding into the premise next door, which is great to see but not exactly reinventing the wheel. The council has announced plans to pedestrianise Union Street and surrounding areas, a plan that has been spoken about for near about a decade, why wait until everyone’s gone to give it the green light?
Aberdeen has a lot to give and has shown itself to be a place that can evolve at times, you just have to look at the impressive Nuart Aberdeen murals dotted all around the city bringing inspiring art to the most mundane corners. Or the new award winning art gallery, as well as the Christmas market that seems to be growing more successful every year. Being situated in such close proximity to surrounding beauty spots it should be a great place for tourists and residents yet it’s missing some imagination and willingness to imagine a different city centre that isn’t consumed by large high street shops, and isn’t driven by the voices of oil industry.