With the latest of the shop closures in Aberdeen hitting John Lewis, 265 jobs will be lost. In the wider picture of years of decline in the city centre and the huge impact on businesses from COVID, it is starkly clear that something needs to be done immediately. Representatives from the likes of Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen Inspired and the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce have all cited this latest closure as devastating to the city centre.
John Lewis opened back in 1989, occupying the ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ brutalist building at the town end of George Street. The institution has stayed open for decades, acting as a main shopping attraction for the city centre, and it is undeniable that this is a huge loss for Aberdeen. This loss has the potential to act as a tipping point in terms of serious action finally being taken to save our city centre. The closure of the Illicit Still in the same week shows that both local businesses and huge PLCs are equally at risk. Without intervention Aberdeen’s high street and city centre will face further closures resulting in even more empty storefronts than we see today.
With a petition calling to reopen the store receiving over 22,000 signatures and an official task force being created to ‘save John Lewis’ it is clear to see there is a real local appetite to keep the business in the city centre. The closure has even drawn national attention, as seen by an official comment from Nicola Sturgeon describing the closure as a ‘real blow’. Seeing that there is no apathy for Aberdeen’s needs is a positive; the people do want better for the city and are willing to take action. The question is, what should be done with the city centre?
As a young person walking through Aberdeen, down Union Street and onto Schoolhill via Belmont Street, it is clear to see that there are some great local businesses already in place. Whilst some are as old as the streets that they inhabit and some are exciting new projects, there is a shared pride in businesses being locally owned and a part of the community. In between all of the bookies and vape shops there are some real quality shops, bars and restaurants. A lot of the negatives of the centre could be put down to the blandness of some of the chain stores that occupy key areas.
This is not to say that Aberdeen should do away with all big business and operate a strictly local business policy. However, the silver lining from the transformation of the centre over recent years has been the flourishing local businesses that have either sprung up or weathered the storm. Innovative ideas and quality products and services are available in Aberdeen, but they need support from both the council and government.
I’m also not saying that people should let go of their hopes of having John Lewis reopen their store, which has been a staple of the centre for years. All that I am saying is that instead of looking to bring in large multinational companies, we should continue to focus on local business even after normal business can resume following the COVID pandemic.
Projects such as STAXX, which celebrate local business and innovative ideas should be championed and promoted endlessly by local authorities. The creators of STAXX are aiming to create a ‘creative social market’, made largely from repurposed shipping containers, that will act as a hub for food, drink, shopping and entertainment. The premise is a familiar take on the indoor market of Aberdeen, but with a modern approach that focuses on social interaction, sustainability and celebrating community. With the market set for a 2022 opening date, this could be a sign that the future of Aberdeen has the potential to be exciting.
Transforming a vacant site in the city centre into an innovate hub for business is inspiring to see. Applying this model of rejuvenation to other empty spaces could transform Aberdeen from ghost town to a bustling community of local businesses. This, in turn, would create the foot traffic needed to attract external investment and larger businesses like John Lewis and Debenhams. We need to make the city centre lucrative once more, increasing footfall and improving the shopping experience are key to attracting businesses and keeping them open. A more cooperative and locally focused collection of businesses could even be seen as successors to the John Lewis building, creating an innovative experience that gives people a reason to come into the centre.
Revitalising Aberdeen from Union Street to Bon Accord will not be easy, but must be done to save the city centre. Whether it is through attracting new business or safeguarding existing stores, a change is most definitely needed. It may seem all doom and gloom at the moment with businesses closing all around us, but we now face a unique opportunity to rebuild Aberdeen in our own image. Let’s make sure that we get it right and change our city for the better.
Words by Ewan Blacklaw