The rapidly changing nature of Scotland’s high streets has been laid bare in a report outlining the challenges facing retailers in the age of online shopping and out-of-town business parks.
Vacancy figures for town centre retail and leisure units across the country rose for the first time in five years in 2017 from 11.7 to 11.9 per cent, analysis by the Local Data Company (LDC) and the University of Stirling found.
But this still represents a long-term reduction since 2013 when the figure was 12.4 per cent.
The annual report also warned that economic changes facing high streets were “considerable” and that levels of business uncertainty remained high.
The increase in Scotland of 0.2 per cent compares with a reducing trend in England, which showed a reduction from 11.3 per cent to 11.1 per cent - although the report authors cautioned this figure was “skewed by the impact of vacancy rates in London”.
Wales continues to reflect the highest vacancy rates across Britain in 2017 at 14.5 per cent.
“While town centre vacancy rates have stabilised, they have not shown the improvement that the shopping centres and retail parks have shown, which for some therein lies the challenge,” said Matthew Hopkinson, director at LDC.
“As with all of LDC’s data the devil is in the detail as well as understanding the wider context. An example is that while Scotland’s shopping centres have more occupied shops that in previous years they still have more empty shopping centre units than England and Wales.
“Is this a result of oversupply, underdevelopment or that high streets and retail parks are the core destinations for consumers?
He added: “The changing nature of places and how they serve the modern consumer is clearly evident in this report. An understanding of these changes and alignment to a plan at each and every town level is key to maintaining the relevance and value of Scotland’s towns.”
The Inverclyde town of Gourock was found to have the highest percentage of independent businesses in Scotland, with 85 per cent of its shops non-chains.
Strathaven, in South Lanarkshire, was in second place at 82.4 per cent, followed by Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, at 81.9, and Moffat in Galloway at 80.8.
The number of independent retailers in Gourock has risen by six per cent since 2013.
“This is the beginning of the journey and we now have to continue working hard to increase football and we’re doing that,” local councillor Ronnie Ahlfeld told the Greenock Telegraph.
Professor Leigh Sparks of the University of Stirling said: “Town centres are always changing and it is vitally important to understand the dimensions of this change.
“The data from the Local Data Company show that the process of adjustment and change across Scotland’s towns and cities continues but is not uniform.
“The headline vacancy figure for towns has risen in the last year but this masks a decline in retail vacancy and a rise in leisure vacancy, the latter for the first time since this series began. We have also seen a decline in the number of charity shops.
“These two sectors are ones which have expanded rapidly in Scotland in recent years, and the data poses the question whether this year’s changes are a pause in expansion or a reverse?”
The number of empty units in Scottish shopping centre declined in 2017, but 20 have vacancy rates above 20 per cent. The Callendar Square centre in Falkirk - which was sold last year - had a vacancy rate of 64.9 per cent.