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Wetherspoon at heart of city ‘super pub’ row

  • Pub group’s plans open debate between big chains and boutiques
  • Should towns and cities have ‘local only’ streets to preserve small shops?

Pub chain JD wetherspoon wants to open a so-called super pub in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town and already a campaign to stop it is gathering pace, encouraged by the Rebus novelist Ian Rankin.

From Tesco and Starbucks to McDonalds and Pizza Hut, we have  a love-hate relationship with chains. On the one hand their familiarity makes them a trusted brand with a track record. Without people buying their goods they would not be successful.

Yet there is something in all of us that resents the homogeneity of big brands and chains, the way they have created look-alike high streets and retail parks across Britain. At worst they represent monolithic, faceless power. The man in the street has no idea who runs them.

No wonder we hark back to times past, an era of local shopkeepers who were our neighbours and friends and were just like us. They operated on a smaller, more human scale.

Many of us have accepted that they can co-exist. We do our big grocery shopping at the hypermarket, but like to browse in smaller outlets at our leisure. It becomes unacceptable when one invades the territory of the other, usually the big chains muscling in on the smaller independents.

Wetherspooon’s plans to open an outlet at 9 Victoria Street has horrified those who believe the crescent shaped road which curves up the hill from Grassmarket to George IV Bridge should be properly preserved as a haven for boutique shops and businesses.

Edinburgh, as a capital city, will always feel these pressures, more so as one which is also a big tourist destination. It is the very attractions of being both of these that attracts the big chains.

In the 1980s, following the end of the brutalism and ‘big is beautiful’ philosophy of the post-war era, the world began to re-engage with heritage. The demolition of town and city centres stopped. Shopping arcades, a fashion that destroyed many older places, were built on the outskirts. It allowed the old towns to breathe again and restore what had escaped the bulldozer.

Among the cities that thrived was York, its medieval buildings surviving largely – as locals would have it – because the city council at the time could not come to a decision. Yet the changes that took place in terms of retail outlets and ownership was transforming in itself. In the early 1980s the famous Stonegate (often mistaken for the Shambles) leading to the Minster, was still home to an 18th century silversmiths, a shop selling exotic fruits and veg from around the the world, a chocolate maker, a pet shop and a corner store that had been selling sheet music for 200 years. By the end of the decade most had been swept away, replaced by the booming retailers of the time,  including Tie Rack and Next who were able to wave million pound cheques under the noses of local shopkeepers to persuade them to sell up. So Stonegate and York’s attractions as a tourist mecca drew in the big chains who replaced the very businesses that had drawn the tourists in the first place.

Those campaigning against Wetherspoon in Edinburgh will face the same issues. It’s a tough call for local authorities too who must weigh the job creation prospects and tax revenues against preserving streets that might otherwise struggle to survive.

Victoria Street must be an exception to that and there ought to be a means of insisting some areas have shops which are ‘locally owned only’. Or is that expecting too much in today’s corporate world?

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