On my last count walking down the length of Union Street, I tallied 30 empty retail units. With their whitewashed windows and big, imposing ‘TO LET’ signs protruding above them, taken together they tell a story of a high street that has taken a proper hammering. Junk mail collects behind their dusty glass doors. ‘MAY SELL’ posters suggest that even some of the landlords have given up. In the grips of this pandemic and all of the economic woes it has inflicted (and is still yet to inflict) it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Aberdeen’s city centre has been on its knees for quite some time now.
Like the rough weather that sometimes rolls in from the North Sea, the Granite City in the last decade has been battered from all sides by economic problems that have converged to form the perfect storm. Aberdeen’s shops and restaurants have had to deal with a global pandemic, a local economy whose fortunes are strapped to rollercoaster oil prices, a second lockdown that mostly deprived them of the desperately needed Eat Out to Help Out boost in August, and to top it all off new restrictions this week that could see some businesses shut their doors for good. All these developments have only worsened existing nationwide trends of high street decline driven by austerity, damaged consumer confidence and a mass shift to online shopping.
Even before the recent shock of Covid-19, the numbers didn’t look pretty. Aberdeen’s city centre had in fact suffered the worst compared to any other city in Scotland, with a total of 40 shut units in 2018 alone. My entire time at university here was sandwiched by downturns: between the oil price crash of 2014/15 and the Coronavirus Crisis which still has us firmly in its grasp. Ever since I first made my way into town for my first Freshers’ night out the huge BHS flagship storefront has lain empty on Union street – a cavernous monument to Aberdeen’s continual struggle to get back on its feet.
There are numerous reasons why this struggle has been so challenging, and it wouldn’t be a discussion about the Aberdeen economy without taking a long, hard look at its oil dependency. A full 40,000 jobs (roughly a third of the total workforce) are estimated to rely on the oil industry, and we’re not just talking contractors and offshore workers either: the money they dosh out in the local economy directly sustains thousands of other jobs in hospitality and retail. When that money dries up and the oil and gas sector takes a hit, so does all of the city.
Such a dependency on one sector perhaps wouldn’t be so problematic if it weren’t for oil’s notorious price volatility, but unfortunately Aberdeen very much remains at the mercy of all that turbulence. The reason behind this is because taking fossil fuels out of the North Sea is an extremely expensive operation, so it stops being profitable if prices fall below a certain level (as they so often do). Clearly diversification of the city’s economy is necessary, and not least because remaining oil and gas reserves are rapidly dwindling and the climate crisis is continuing to escalate at pace.
Such a diversification is going to have to then take place onshore rather than off it, so revitalising the city centre should surely be a cornerstone of any strategy moving forwards. Away from the pound shops, bookies and vape lounges of Union Street there are areas of town that have weathered Aberdeen’s economic problems far better, and I think by evaluating what has gone right for the city in some places we can learn lessons and work towards fixing what’s gone wrong in others.
Whilst Union Street could still rightfully lay claim to being Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare, the economic centre of gravity has long shifted away elsewhere. It’s now Union Square that is increasingly seen as Aberdeen’s premier retail hub – and for very good reason. The mall serves as a transport terminus for the city’s rail network and inter-/inner-city bus links and boasts a ton of different shops, restaurants and a Cineworld. It’s not hard to see why Union Square is popular. Aberdeen’s centre isn’t just used by residents of the city itself but also by people from across Aberdeenshire who travel here – often by car – to shop, work or enjoy themselves in a city setting. Shopping at Union Square means escaping the wind and torrential rain in a cosy, sheltered mall with cheap and accessible parking and all the shops you could ever need under one roof.
Aberdeen isn’t alone in having a centrally located shopping mall, but if we compare and contrast Union Square to similar malls in cities like Glasgow we can see why it’s problematic. Glasgow being a bigger city has quite a few indoor shopping centres in the heart of town: you have Buchanan Galleries, the St. Enoch Centre, and Princes Square to name a few. I think the difference lies in the relationship these centres have to the wider high street: they act as extensions to, rather than replacements for, the rest of town.
Glasgow’s central malls sit on the highly pedestrianised Buchanan and Argyll streets and share footfall with main street shops, whilst Union Square sits pretty separate from the rest of Aberdeen – there isn’t much pedestrian flow between the mall and Union Street, nor is it particularly encouraged by Aberdeen’s street layout either. As a result shoppers tend to make a choice between the two, and it’s a no brainer they settle on Union Square with its better facilities and big name brands.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the rent in Union Square wasn’t so extortionate and didn’t work to shut out smaller independent businesses. The cost of letting a small shop on Union Street runs at roughly £20,000-£50,000 a year, or about £380-£1,000 a week. A 5 by 5 metre stall in Union Square will set you back 2 and a half grand for seven days’ rent* (*subject to rate rises during the holiday period). That’s inordinately expensive, but big brands will pay it because they’re confident a) in their brand recognition and b) in Union Square’s popularity with Aberdonian shoppers. That leaves small businesses struggling to carve out a space of their own around Aberdeen’s traditional heart of Union Street, Belmont and Schoolhill where they can still afford a lease, and where there aren’t as many customers as there were before.
I’ve mentioned already all of the economic woes facing Aberdeen, but in truth I’m not all too worried for H&M, Wagamama’s or the Apple shop – it’s the fate of Aberdeen’s small and independent stores and eateries that concerns me. Unlike big brands they don’t have massive cash reserves they can rely on in difficult times like this, and more often than not entrepreneurs who start these businesses plug their life savings into them to get them off the ground.
It’s a huge gamble for small business owners to set off on their own, and it doesn’t always pay off. 55% of new businesses in the UK fail to survive longer than 5 years, and when you take that statistic and pair it with all of the external economic issues that haunt Aberdeen it doesn’t make the city a particularly appealing place to set up shop. I’m sure I’m not the only person who was upset by the news that popular toastie punter ‘Melt’ on Belmont Street had to shut its doors after the second lockdown was announced, but sadly I don’t believe it will be the last casualty either. That such a renowned and well-regarded Aberdeen business couldn’t survive in this period should tell you all you need to know about just how difficult things are for small shops right now and how tight the margins are between survival and closure.
The answer to the dominance of Union Square isn’t to raze it to the ground out of spite, but rather it comes back to what I was talking about earlier in this post. The function of a shopping mall in a healthy city centre should be an extension of the existing high street: there should be flow and connectivity between different areas to gently encourage shoppers to explore other parts of the city centre when they make their way into town for a day out.
The St Nicholas Centre is a good example of what I’m getting at in that it acts as a bridge between Union Street and Bon Accord, linking together two hubs of activity and providing plenty of retail space in between – the roof garden above it is a decent place to spend a sunny day that is actually used and appreciated by plenty of visitors. Marischal Square also shows promise and fulfils a pretty similar purpose linking Castle- and Gallowgate. If we can learn what works from these examples and apply those same principles in other developments Union Square could easily be linked up with Union Street with some smart architecture and a little bit of creative space usage in Aberdeen’s neglected merchant quarter.
In the pipeline are plans to completely redevelop Aberdeen’s Market building, and I think this affords Aberdeen’s urban planners a very rare opportunity to breathe some life back into the city centre. My sympathies of course lie with the businesses that have been forced out but the Market that houses them has in in recent years become a shadow of its former self, and the decidedly 70s façade looks tired and deeply uninviting.
It’s a shame, because the site lies right at the gateway to the Green which was once Aberdeen’s beating heart in its heyday. Nowadays the Green is beginning to build a reputation as an excellent outdoors events space, but outside of that it doesn’t remain overly popular with pedestrians on your average day in town. Perhaps the new Market development can help to bring people back to the merchant quarter and reinvigorate an area which holds a lot of promise to marry together Union Street and Square.
Connectivity matters – but rent matters a lot more. Recently announced was the ‘Staxx’ concept which should be up and running next year potentially on Shiprow. If it all goes ahead the idea is to house and incubate local start-ups at low rents in container units before encouraging them on to the high street once they’re ready. Initiatives like Staxx are useful but they only paper over problems that truly require policy changes from government that can prevent greedy landlords from price gauging and hollowing out our high street in the first place.
Beyond pinning the city’s hopes on the fancy looking artist’s impressions of property developers there are other important structural changes that need to take place that have long gone unaddressed. Aberdeen has the worst public transport links of any city in Scotland, along with the worst rush-hour congestion speeds. The centre of town pre-Covid was hardly pedestrian friendly, and it’s taken a global catastrophe for the council to finally trial pedestrianising parts of town as so many other Scottish towns and cities have done successfully in decades past. If it’s true that crises are opportunities in disguise then we need to make use of this urgent moment to radically rethink what we want the centre of town to look like and how people can access it.
We can’t go back to how things were before, and the moving goalposts of Covid restrictions certainly make for choppy waters up ahead. Many of the Granite City’s long-running and well-respected businesses are not going to make it back to shore, and plenty of others are teetering on the brink of collapse. In the face of all this it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the feeling that everything is a bit grey and hopeless for the future, or by the sense that nothing can be done to turn back the tide of decline.
Times are tough at the moment: of that there can be no doubt. Purse strings are tightening and jobs are being lost. But there is a very small amount of agency that we all still have, and that is in the small amounts of money that some of us are lucky enough to have the luxury of spending on a coffee, pint or bite to eat over the next few months. Vote with your wallet. Support local business. If you can’t afford to do that: spread the word. When you spend money in your local community it stays in your local community, and it will go a long way in making sure Aberdeen’s remaining small business owners can weather this mother of all storms and make it to the other side.
Words and photography by Charlie Forbes
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
Jeff Speck – TED talk on city walkability:
The Press and Journal – ‘Shops, offices and penthouse restaurant planned for Aberdeen ‘eyesore’ building’:
The Press and Journal – ‘Long-serving Aberdeen retailer calls for help for shoppers taking on ‘Krypton Factor’ challenge to find a parking space’:
John M. Corrall – Aberdeen Streets:
The Press and Journal – ‘No plans to change Aberdeen physical distancing road changes in spite of city lockdown linked to hospitality trade’:
The Press and Journal – ‘Call for ‘re-imagining’ of the High Street after more than 40 shops close in Granite City in 2018’:
Aberdeen City Council – ‘Aberdeen Residential Strategy’:
The Economist – ‘How falling oil prices have affected Aberdeen’:
Abby Hardoon – ‘The importance of small businesses in the UK economy’:
Living Streets – ‘The Pedestrian Pound’: