‘No quick fix’ for crisis in Scottish town centres

Report reveals communities with highest number of shops lying empty. Picture: Neil Hanna
Report reveals communities with highest number of shops lying empty. Picture: Neil Hanna
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ABOUT 70 per cent of vacant shops in a third of Scotland’s cities and towns have remained empty for more than a year, according to a report out today.

The study found Inverness has the highest vacancy rate of all Scottish cities at 18 per cent – while small towns such as Banff and Huntly have vacancy rates in excess of 30 per cent.

The snapshot of Scotland’s town centres, published by The Local Data Company, The Institute for Retail Studies and The University of Stirling, and launched today at an event in Edinburgh, called for a “local approach” to deal with the problem of empty shops in specific areas.

Across Scotland, 14.5 per cent of shops are currently lying empty, the report found – with more than 40 per cent of that space having been vacant for more than a year. In a third of towns and cities, 70 per cent of vacant shops have been without a tenant for more than 12 months.

While Inverness has the highest vacancy rate, Glasgow and Dundee have struggled most since the onset of the recession in 2008, the report, entitled “Scotland: Retailing in the top 100 Cities and Towns”, said.

Edinburgh, which has been comparatively buoyant throughout the recession, currently has the lowest vacancy rate of all cities in Scotland at just 12.5 per cent.

However, both it and Inverness saw the proportion of vacant shops rise over the past year, in contrast to Perth, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen, which reduced their proportion of empty retail premises.

Inverurie, which has 100 shops, has the lowest vacancy rate of all Scottish towns and cities at just two per cent.

Experts warned that the empty shops should be put to different use – such as a higher proportion of office and leisure facilities – in a bid to generate demand in the retail market and help Scotland’s town centres thrive. “Much vacant property is thus potentially permanently vacant indicating surplus capacity, slow market adaptation and the need for rethinking about our use of space,” said the report.

David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG, which backed the report, added: “There is no quick fix. In most cases it is necessary to reduce the amount of shops on the high street and bring back leisure and residential use, to reinvigorate the high street, allowing it to evolve to meet the needs of the modern consumer.”

The report added that Scotland has a different retail landscape to the rest of the UK. Vacancy rates south of the Border are slightly lower at 14.1 per cent, while Scotland has a slightly higher proportion of chain stores than Britain as a whole, at 35 per cent.

“Scotland is spatially large, has a strong town culture with some city-regions, notably Glasgow and Edinburgh, with Aberdeen as a special oil and gas case,” the report added. “The public sector is more significant in Scotland than many other parts of the UK and disposable income is lower.”

The publication of the document comes just months after a separate report, “The National Review of Town Centres”, led by architect Malcolm Fraser, urged town planners to “put town centres first” and regenerate Scotland’s flagging urban communities.

The Scottish Government’s response last month included a boost of £2 million to help bring empty town centre properties back into use, and more rates relief for businesses that take on these empty properties.

More than 60 towns and cities on Scotland have more than 100 shops, the report found, while four towns – Ayr, Paisley, Falkirk and Kilmarnock – have over 400 shops, with two of them boasting more retail than cities Stirling and Inverness. Glasgow is Scotland’s shopping capital, boasting more than 5,000 shops, followed by Edinburgh with 3,896.

Inverness is the city with the greatest number of empty shops as a percentage of total premises at 65 per cent – due to a propensity for out-of-town offices, compared to Aberdeen, which has just 58.5 per cent.

“This report shows that despite the concerns, retailing is still a fundamentally important and numerically and economically significant component of Scotland’s cities and towns,” said Professor Leigh Sparks, head of the Institute of Retail Studies at Stirling University.

“But there is considerable variation in the significance of, and make-up of, the retail mix across Scotland’s towns and cities. Understanding these differences is an important step in beginning to rethink what is needed in each of our centres and what the potential is generally, and for individual places.

“The work presented today starts conversations at the national and the local level about what we need to do in our towns and cities to make sure we have a successful and suitable retail offer.”

Gretna – where figures are skewed by the inclusion of the Gretna Gateway Centre in the data – and Livingston have the lowest proportion of independent shops, at six per cent and 13 per cent respectively.

Matthew Hopkinson, director at the Local Data Company, said: “The squeeze on consumer spend, the significance of out-of-town retailing including supermarkets, and the relentless growth of internet sales are all significant issues for Scotland’s town centres. Distance is no object as online fulfilment improves and costs are driven down by demand.

“In light of the forthcoming referendum on independence, the current variances to national averages are of interest.”

The average proportion of charity shops in Scotland’s towns and cities is 3.6 per cent, the report found, with cities having far lower proportions of charity shops than towns.

However, in Cupar, Callander, St Andrews and Musselburgh more than six per cent of retail outlets are charity shops.

Mr Hopkinson added: “Scotland has the same challenges as the rest of Great Britain and in some cases such as vacancy, charity shops, office licences, cheque cashing, pawn-broking and betting shops, the numbers are above average and thus a cause for concern. Balanced town centre economies based around the most appropriate occupational mix and the day vs night time economy are the keys to survival in the most challenging of times for Scotland’s town centres.”

Alistair Munro: ‘Try finding an electrical shop in the centre of Inverness to buy a plug, it’s nearly impossible’

Shopping in Inverness city centre has become more depressing over the years.

Walking through the main thoroughfares throws up a constant theme of more and more charity shops, mobile phone retailers, bookmakers and “cash converters”.

It is a scene which is, admittedly, mirrored throughout the country, but it seems more in your face in the smallest city in Scotland, whose main shopping streets – unlike those in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee – are constricted to just half a dozen.

Shoppers come face-to-face with numerous empty shops and for-let signs on display – although, thankfully, not as many as 12 months ago.

But many of the outlets who have moved into the vacant shops are on short-term leases, not wishing to take the risk of a heavy financial burden. How many will still be here after Christmas?

Efforts are being made to make the city centre more attractive, led by Inverness Business Improvement District (BID). Individual retailers are also attempting to make a mark, but seeing a new enterprise disappear after just six months in the town is common.

Out-of-town retail parks, shopping malls and online shopping are being blamed.

The lack of parking for access into the centre of Inverness, however, is also a massive factor. Why pay to get into the town when there are retail parks with free parking, where there is a bigger selection of shops which are closer to walk to?

And don’t forget, Inverness is Tesco Town, with four of their stores spread throughout the city, offering everything from general goods to clothing, TVs and toys. Try finding an electrical shop in the centre of the city to buy, say, a plug – it’s nearly impossible.

For those unaware, there is a small outlet in the Victorian Market where independent traders are struggling to fight the major superstores – Asda has recently opened, Lidl and Aldi are boasting a great trade, and there’s a Sainsbury’s in Nairn, less than 20 miles away.

Even those who are attempting to bring more variety into the centre of the city are being thwarted at the very beginning of their efforts.

An ambitious initiative which brought together numerous retailers into a large vacant property is being threatened by a massive rates bill.

The Village is the brainchild of David Lynch and has been hailed as “a project of entrepreneurialism and innovation”. It opened last year in the former Toymaster’s store – more than 6,500 square feet and offering space to small independent traders, with shops including a skateboard store, arecord shop and vintage clothing unit.

But a valuation appeal has deemed the venture a single unit, rather than small individual businesses, which leaves Mr Lynch with an unaffordable rates bill of £48,000. He said: “This prevents each business from claiming small business rates relief. We had filled premises left vacant by Toymaster, and it would most likely still be empty without us. But we are being punished for being in one big unit. Everyone here is a separate entity, but we have been handed a single rates bill and it leaves all of us without the option of seeking rates relief.”

The traders now face the prospect of shutting up shop, when the city centre is crying out for independent businesses offering something different.

It is a joke to force these traders, who have breathed new life into an empty store, to leave, but it seems more and more likely.

As with the vacant shops still looking for a new occupier, watch this space.