Scotland’s most challenged towns show signs of recovery

A new report on Scotland’s top cities and towns reveals data on the health of Scotland’s high streets.

Written by the Institute for Retail Studies at the University of Stirling and based on field researched data from the Local Data Centre (LDC), the research set out to answer three questions: what is the retail scale of Scottish towns and cities? What is the vacancy rate and how is it changing? And what is the retail structure of Scottish towns and cities?

The Scottish national vacancy rate for retail and leisure units in towns is 11.7%. This has fallen from 13% in 2012 and marks the fourth consecutive drop since 2012.

The pattern established since 2012 is repeated this year with England enjoying a lower vacancy rate than Scotland. However, these figures are skewed by the vacancy rates in London and in the south-east which tend to be lower than the rest of the country. Wales has an even higher town centre vacancy rate than that of Scotland.

Retail park vacancy across Britain has fallen in 2016 with the exception of Scotland which has remained stable at 7.8% – this is the highest rate across Britain.

Scottish shopping centres also display the highest vacancy rates across the country at 16.9% although this constitutes a substantial reduction from 17.6% last year and mirrors the trend in the UK that sees vacancy in shopping centres reducing. This is a significant reduction from the highest levels of Scottish shopping centre vacancy in 2013 when it peaked at 18.8%.

The report said Scottish town centres, retail parks and shopping centres are moving in the right direction but more remains to be done as progress has slowed.

Key findings include:

*Scotland’s average retail (shop) vacancy rate has fallen from 12.9% to 12.6%

*Dundee has the highest vacancy rate of Scottish cities at 22% (+1%) whilst Brechin has the highest vacancy rate of Scottish towns at 24%, up from 22.3% in 2015

*Across Scotland, the average vacancy rate in towns is now equal to the average vacancy rate in cities at 12.6%. Towns have decreased the vacancy rate by 0.6% while cities saw a 0.3% increase in the last 12 months

*Longniddry has the lowest vacancy rate at 0.0%, with all retail units occupied

*Five towns have maintained retail vacancy rates at 4% or less for the last three years: Longniddry (0.0%), Andrews (2.7%), Inverurie (3.1%), Dalkeith (3.9%) and Dunbar (4%), East Kilbride (-16.0%) and Troon (-8.1%) have seen the biggest improvement in their vacancy rates during the 2015/16 period

*Cowdenbeath (+7.6%) experienced the biggest increase in vacancy rate between 2014/5 and 2015/6

*Inverness was the only Scottish city to not experience an increase in its vacancy rate, with a drop of -2.9%

*Since the first report in 2012/13, Tillicoultry (-78.1%) and Kyle (-66.7%) have seen the biggest percentage improvement in their vacancy rates

*Girvan, Kirkwall, Fort William and Ardrossan have the highest proportion of total units that have vacant for over three years (all over 15% of total units)

*Out of the Scottish cities, Dundee has the largest percentage of units that have been vacant for over three years (9.9%)

*Independent retailing is critical to Scotland’s towns with 55% of the total units being occupied by independent retailers. Kircudbright has the highest proportion of independent retailers at 88%. Tillicoultry (5%) and Gretna (8%) have the lowest proportion.

*Leisure (Food, Drink & Entertainment) is an increasingly significant presence in cities and towns with 40% of occupiers in Edinburgh and Glasgow classified as leisure. Ullapool is the leading town with 42% of its occupiers classed as leisure

*Edinburgh is the city with the largest number of charity shops (58), although this number is reducing with the number of charity shops dropping by -10 units since 2014/15. Ayr is the town with the largest number of charity shops with 13, a drop from 14 in 2014/15

*The Booze Money and Gambling Index (BMG) which tracks the presence of these shop types, has reduced from a high of 5.8% of all units to 4.8% in 2016. The town with the highest BMG index is Coatbridge at 14.3%

*In the last 12 months the number of cheque cashing (-35%) premises, off-licences (-13.4%) and betting shops (-1.6%) have all reduced

Professor Leigh Sparks of the Institute for Retail Studies at University of Stirling commented: “Vacancy rates continue to decline in Scotland across cities and towns. Since 2013, Scottish ‘all vacancy’ has reduced from 12.4% to 11.7% in 2016. Retail vacancy has reduced over the same timescale from 13.4% to 12.6%. This is reflective of broad economic changes as well as local restructuring within cities and towns.

“Both cities and towns are experiencing changes in structure. Leisure and service activities are growing in numbers and retail is experiencing reductions in proportionate terms. Cities are leading the way and identifying that the appropriate mix of retail and leisure may play a role in retaining footfall across cities and towns.

“Given the concern about our towns and cities and the importance of retailing as a signifier, it’s particularly important to monitor retail change and to develop the range of the monitoring and understanding. The ability to reflect on changes in premises, vacancy and indeed, persistent vacancy can help identify not only what is happening in places, but also what needs to happen. Changing retail structures will help us plan the places consumers want to live in and the services they expect to be provided around them.”

LDC director Matthew Hopkinson added: “In light of so much political uncertainty, both within Scotland and the UK,  it’s encouraging to see more shops being filled in Scottish towns and not by uses which some people consider to be high street pariahs.

“It also shows how cities are changing and, in some cases, the number of shops is reducing either as a result of change of use or redevelopment – of which the St James Centre in Edinburgh is an example. The impact of such changes in the retail and leisure offer is important to track and understand.

“Persistent vacancy is one of the key alarm bells for any town or city. So it’s encouraging to see a reduction in the number of Scottish towns showing persistent vacancy. Yet there are some towns where one in seven of the units have been empty for more than three years.

“Overall, the data shows that Scotland is making good progress in responding to the challenges of modern place management and this can only be done, as Professor Leigh Sparks makes clear in the report, through good data and sound analysis on an ongoing basis. It is this that we strive to do at LDC, in the support of the communities and places that make Scotland what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.”

LDC is a ‘data creator that delivers primary evidence on thousands of companies and locations, including high streets, town centres, shopping centres, retail parks and standalone out of town stores. It provides online insights and bespoke reports and advice to retailer and leisure occupiers, investors, landlords, banks, councils, business improvement districts and the media.

The Institute for Retail Studies at the University of Stirling is a leading research and education centre on the subject of retailing.


Edinburgh is the Scottish city with the largest number of charity shops

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