St James Centre and the common good

I’ll admit that I find it hard, personally, to get as excited as some of my councillor colleagues in other parties on the scheme to develop the St James Shopping Centre.

After all, it is a small part of a much bigger economic model which is deeply flawed: based on high levels of personal consumption (often through unsustainable credit) and drawing in cheap imports from poorer countries where labour costs are less and protections are weaker. And, from an environmental point of view, the costs of resource-intensive consumerism are massive.

To the extent that the St James Centre is part of that model it is hardly a cause for celebration.

But I’ll also acknowledge that not everyone shares my views. A lot of people like going to the shops and the ubiquitous brands are popular. So I get the argument which says that, if people in Edinburgh want to go to the shops, then it is better that they find these shops in the centre of the city, rather than in soulless retail parks on the periphery, travelling to Glasgow or Newcastle, or flocking to “tax-cautious” online retailers.

And it is not as if there is a blank canvas for the St. James Centre. There is already a shopping mall there, albeit in decline, and a cluster of buildings which do little to flatter the outstanding cityscape all around. Almost anything would be better than what is there.

So that is why Greens have welcomed plans to redevelop the area while seeking to retain the critical distance that, I believe, makes for better scrutiny and a redevelopment model which best delivers on potential benefits. Because we know that, in retail-led regeneration, success or failure lies in the detail.

For the St James Centre this includes:

1. Ensuring that any public money put into the scheme is genuinely justified by additional benefits of the same value that would not otherwise accrue and that public money is recouped through net rises in business rates.

2. Making sure that the redevelopment process protects the interest of those currently employed in the St James area and that both the construction and operational phases maximise benefits for the local labour market.

3. Clarifying the status of any common good assets within the development area and making sure the common good account gets full market value for those assets; the better to be invested in the common good portfolio which the city council holds on behalf of all residents.

4. Seeking opportunities for distinctively Edinburgh businesses to secure places in the new development to avoid it becoming a “clone town” setting.

5. Establishing the new centre as a pioneer in environmental standards – not just for the planned new energy centre and district heating, but in waste and water and in access via active and public transport.

6. Making the new centre a catalyst for prosperity in the wider city centre / Leith Walk area, rather than sucking trade away from that hinterland.

7. Focusing the market on tourism and residents within the existing catchment area, rather than undermining the fragile economies of other centres in the city region, for example, in Borders towns or Fife.

The issue of common good land is one I particularly raised in the Council Chamber today (29 May) because I believe that the example of Waverley Market (now Princes Mall) shows how problematic the council has found common good land recently. In 1982 Waverley Market was let on an ultra long lease of a penny a year when it could have been earning millions for the common good portfolio. I want to make sure that misjudgements like that are never repeated, and that any common good land in the St James area gives maximum benefit to the common good portfolio which belongs to the people of Edinburgh as a whole.

It would be wrong to say that these kind of observations are missing from the discussions. But they need to be anchored in the DNA of the project rather than left simply as aspirations.

So if the St James redevelopment is to be genuinely mould-breaking, these are the kinds of things it will do.

I look forward to seeing it deliver.