Roadworks are changing the face of major high streets, but are the future benefits worth the disruption to retailers, asks Sara McCorquodale

This year the Edinburgh Festival should have been a gift from the tourist board to the city’s retailers. Ticket sales were up 20% on last year and a record 2,098 shows were on offer around Scotland’s capital.

And as if the consumer pull wasn’t great enough, it was the 60th anniversary of the Military Tattoo. In theory, the thousands of tourists piling into the city should have wanted a little piece of Scotland to take home as a memento of the entire spectacular.

But, unfortunately for retailers on Princes Street, the hordes of visitors side-stepped its mile-long offering and headed for the Royal Mile and George Street instead. The Princes Street retailers blame this on one main factor – the ongoing roadworks to build a tramway, due to be completed in 2011.

William Arthurs has been a supervisor for the street’s Whisky Shop store for two years. He says: “Footfall has dropped massively. People are trying to avoid Princes Street because of the mess it’s in. This year the festival just hasn’t been the same.” He adds: “The difference in custom has been noticeable since the roadworks started but we still expected a big rush during the Fringe. It just hasn’t happened, even though there’s money going about and the city is packed. We usually make our biggest sales at this time of year and Christmas.”

Arthurs says he has heard that the work might continue until next summer, which would spell another bad Christmas. “Everyone has great sympathy for us – customers and other retailers. We’re not a big business and this is not easy for us. We just wish the building of the tramway was better managed.”

In many cases across the UK major infrastructure works have become the difference between a successful and an average quarter for retailers. At present, ongoing disruptions in London’s Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road areas have turned ideal shopping locations into unappealing high streets for buyers and browsers alike.

The work on the former part of central London began in September last year, and on the latter in January. Although many retailers are reluctant to comment on the situation, a source from one book retailer on Charing Cross Road says the area has descended into “chaos” since the roadworks commenced.

And it is not just roads that are affected by action to improve infrastructure. The frequent closure or part suspension of several major underground lines, such as the Victoria and Bakerloo, also make it harder for consumers to access larger central high streets.

A drag on footfall

New West End Company spokesman Jace Tyrrell says the West End has 200 million visitors every year and tube closures have a definite impact on footfall. As a result, he says it is lobbying the Mayor’s office to ensure those in charge are sympathetic to retailers when carrying out work affecting transport in the city. “It’s about joined-up thinking as far as we’re concerned. If roadworks and water works are needed, why not do them at the same time? Different agencies need to talk to each other,” he says.

A practical approach is paramount in avoiding disruption as retailers’ legal rights on opposing these roadworks are thin on the ground. Lawyer Geoffrey Silman is a consultant for Finers Stephens Innocent and specialises in commercial property, landlord and tenant law.

He says: “I think the main thing people can do is complain to their local authority. They may be able to get money back from business interruption insurance if they can prove a loss in turnover. Retailers might be able to get compensation on business rates, but complaining is probably the best course of action in the first instance. I suppose they’ve got a right to say the work needs to be done at another time – perhaps at night when customers aren’t as likely to be in the area.”

Making your discontent known can result in a positive outcome if other retailers in the area are willing to approach the council too. At present, Jenners, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams are working together to bring a greater focus on the consequences that building the tramway will have for retailers on Princes Street.

In addition, before the opening of the Fringe on August 7, Edinburgh council and a group of stakeholders in the area discussed how to minimise disruption during the festival. The meeting – attended by retailers, hoteliers and festival representatives – resulted in a plan to encourage shoppers on to Princes Street and a strategy to make this as easy as possible for them.

Revolving around space management, direction, information and promotion the aim of the plan was to ensure visitors knew why the roadworks were happening. Access was also a key objective, with the council creating extra pedestrian crossings in daylight hours onto the street.

However, House of Fraser chief financial officer Mark Gifford says a permanent incentive for Princes Street shoppers must be developed. He says: “Free or cheaper parking would be a good idea, but only in the short term. We need something for the long run if people are going to keep shopping here.”

He also warns the drop in footfall and appeal of the area could be lasting. “With all of these disruptions, retailers will go out of business and people will lose their jobs,” says Gifford. “We spent £3m on Jenners in Princes Street last year and have since made a slight loss despite investing highly. Other retailers are not going to invest now because it’s not logical.”

Gifford is adamant there needs to be a comprehensive plan put in place before anyone spends money on their Princes Street stores. “We all need to work together to make this situation better,” he says. “No one wants to see Princes Street become an area full of pound shops and novelty shops. It was once the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s high streets. I hope things don’t go the way I think they may go.”

Necessary evil?

Despite Gifford’s concerns that the roadworks may halt store investment, Edinburgh council believes retailers that remain on the street will profit from the tramway. A spokesperson says: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. If we didn’t improve Edinburgh we wouldn’t be growing as a capital city – we want to be able to compete on a global stage. The retailers will see the benefits in two or three years’ time when it is up and running.”

Tyrrell believes London retailers should also try to keep the end result in mind. “Sometimes you have to go through short-term pain for long-term gain. We’re spending £5m on re-doing Oxford Circus and when it’s finished the benefits will be huge. We’ll have the first diagonal crossing in the UK. It’s important to carry out these roadworks to make sure we remain competitive.”

British Retail Consortium spokesman urges retailers to be patient through these trying times, and authorities in turn to be sympathetic to the businesses being disrupted. He says: “Investment in new infrastructure is a good thing. It benefits retailers because it makes transportation easier for the consumer. You have to balance the potential future gains with the current impact.”

The BRC believes an assessment should be made to calculate how roadworks will affect retailers before development begins. While a sensible idea in theory, whether it would work in practice – after factoring in funding – remains to be seen. Ultimately, the aim is to improve Britain’s high streets and this has to be positive. But only if the improved area outshines the disruption it went through and if consumers haven’t been dissuaded from shopping there for good.

A roadworks success

Worcester’s High Street Project involved major retailers such as Debenhams and House of Fraser. An audit carried out in consultation with the city’s retailers identified the need for significant improvements to its high street.

From 2004 to 2006, the area underwent a local authority funded £1.6m redevelopment to simplify the overall design of the vicinity to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

Drainage and electrical cables was re-laid to improve infrastructure, and trees and shrubs were replaced to enhance the aesthetic of the high street.

The BRC now deems the area to be easier to use.