Is the high street dead?
That’s the burning question asked by shoppers over the last few years as one national retailer after another shut up shop.
But despite the loss of Marks and Spencer, BHS and WH Smith – among many others – the answer in Fife seems to be no, but it needs to be reborn.
Kirkcaldy has suffered particularly badly in the last decade as large stores closed and left empty units.
But it has ambitions and green shoots of recovery are already being seen.
New smaller, independent businesses are springing up and work is ongoing to attract even more.
And that seems to be the key to recovery.
According to Danny Cepok of Love Oor Lang Toun, Kirkcaldy High Street’s future depends on three things:
- Exclusive retailers not found anywhere else
- More high street housing
- And family-friendly activities, including in the evening
It’s an approach already being taken in Leven as it prepares for the opening of its railway in 2024.
And it’s why Cupar town centre is bucking the trend with a drop in vacant units during the pandemic.
Kirkcaldy: Vision of a 21st Century town centre
Love Oor Lang Toun is an independent community organisation focusing on regenerating Kirkcaldy town centre.
Danny and his colleagues spent many months drawing up a vision for the future and the public has reacted positively.
They began by commissioning a map showing every empty unit in the High Street.
Then they teamed up with a firm of architects to carry out a detailed survey.
“They came up with some interesting ideas,” says Danny.
“Our vision is to create a 21st Century town centre that local people can be proud of.
The potential is huge,”
Danny Cepok, Love Oor Lang Toun.
“It’s not going to be about big retail anymore and people tell us they understand that.”
Things have already changed in the months since the map was created.
But so far there are no plans for the unit vacated by M&S in 2019.
“We had a tour of that with the architect and the potential is huge,” Danny says.
“It’s a massive, massive building. It could be sub-divided into different spaces.
“It could host pop-up leisure events for families. A pop-up bowling alley was one of the things mentioned, or an indoor artisan market, alongside smaller businesses and work spaces.
“A big thing is family-friendly leisure stuff and events that will bring people down with kids in the evening.”
‘If they live on the High Street, they’ll shop on the High Street’
One way to improve footfall is to have people living on the High Street.
A £6 million affordable housing development in the east end has started and attention is turning to the properties above the shops.
Around half of those are empty but could be developed.
“Once upon a time it was all living accommodation,” says Danny.
“But with the retail expansion in the ’60s stores like Littlewoods and BHS came and used these spaces for storage.
“We’re still living with the legacy of that but developers are starting to realise the potential.”
While Love Oor Lang Toun has no money to invest, it has started a conversation and many of the ideas are gaining traction.
I hate to hear people say the High Street is dead,”
Kirkcaldy MSP David Torrance.
And it has just approved a £360,000 investment for further improvements.
Kirkcaldy MSP David Torrance says Kirkcaldy High Street’s future looks more promising now than it did a few years ago.
“I hate to hear people say the High Street is dead,” he says.
“It’s adapting to the new ways people shop. It will take time but what’s happening is very positive.
“There needs to be housing, whether it’s private or social. If people live in the High Street, they’ll shop in the High Street.”
And the SNP MSP points out independent merchants are already there, ready to serve them.
Working to turn Leven High Street into a destination
People in Leven have also realised that leisure is a key driver of regeneration.
And they’re a bit further ahead in realising their ambition than Kirkcaldy.
With the new Levenmouth rail link on track to open in spring 2024, the community realised they had to give people a reason to visit the town.
And among the positive work, is a plan to improve the High Street.
After months of development, they have just reopened as escape rooms and crazy golf.
“That large redundant space was having a really negative effect on the High Street,” says Brian.
In a way, what we need to do is bring back the Leven of old.”
“People were asking is the High Street dead? No, it isn’t dead but it has to change because we have changed as consumers.
“High streets that do well now are artisan high streets with small, local traders.
“People go for an experience, to meet friends over coffee or to go to the hairdressers. That’s the new future of the high street.
“And in a way what we need to do is bring back the Leven of old when people went to the beach and the amusement arcades then came up to the High Street.
“We’re creating a destination where people will stop and spend money.”
Cupar is bucking the trend
In north east Fife, Cupar has continued to flourish despite the Covid pandemic.
More businesses have opened in the last two years, leading to a drop in vacant shops.
It was the first town centre in the region to see Fife Council investment in social housing, which has increased footfall.
And it has followed the shop local model for several years.
According to Simon Baldwin of Destination Digital, which delivers services for the CuparNow project, this has proved successful.
“The core of CuparNow is to promote Cupar’s businesses first and foremost to a local audience,” he says.
“The very nature of our work is to push the #ThinkLocal message – to share with our growing audience that, whatever they need, they will find it in Cupar.
“Food and drink, shopping, services – it is all available.”
CuparNow has a blog, social media channels, a podcast and email subscription which together have an audience of more than 60,000 – six times the population of the town.
Steering group chairman Andrew Thomson says: “Cupar remains a market town.
“We do not have a huge tourism market and yet the advocacy of our audience – our readers, followers, viewers, listeners and subscribers – are sharing the content we create with their friends, family and colleagues around the world.”