Scottish Retail Sales: Covid Impacts against the Long Term Data

The British/Scottish Retail Consortium has been producing its Scottish Retail Sales Monitor for a long time.  I have been charting the results since last century (!) and have commented on the monthly figures in this blog before, for example here and here.

I do occasionally have issues with some of the press releases with the data and the ‘spin’ put on the figures (see here), but it is the SRC’s data and they can say what they wish.  The very existence of this monitor over this length of time is a valuable thing in its own right.

Covid has of course disrupted retail sales, with shops suffering restrictions and closures and consumers shifting patterns of spending across sectors and onto online channels.  Retailing itself has changed over the long and the Covid short (ish) run.

The first set of charts below is showing the long run data.  They compare in turn food and non-food sales in Scotland, all sales in Scotland and the UK, Scotland and the figures as a three month moving average and Scotland and the UK non-food sales including via the internet.  These are the normal charts that I use in commenting on this data.

The point they all make is the same.  We know the pandemic is a once in a century event (hopefully) but this is so starkly shown in the charts.  The disruption and volatility overwhelms the normal variation.  We are living in unprecedented times and need to have every sympathy with the retailers (small and large) who are trying to trade and survive in this pandemic.  This is tough and they have done a magnificent job as a sector.

The second sequence of charts looks at the same data sets but graphs only the sequence from January 2019 i.e. the year before the pandemic onwards.  The scale of disruption is again evident, but the differences are now more apparent. The graphs allow a focus on the pandemic changes.

It is worth noting here that the monitor looks at sales a year ago as its comparator.  But, in the pandemic this is an issue, especially when sectors are shut and in lockdown.  So March-July 2021 compares to 2019 not to 2020 i.e. two years back, not one, to account for this period of the first lockdown.

The impact of the pandemic in Scotland is clearly seen to be, as expected, mainly a non-food retail issue.  Whilst panic-buying of food in March 2020 is apparent, the food data is pretty consistent by comparison to non-food.  Here the first lockdown, followed by slow recovery and then further restrictions followed by a massive release in 2021 is seen.  Non-food retailing has been tough.

The Scotland and UK trends are pretty mirroring, though more extreme in Scotland (possibly a scale effect in part).  The three month average dampens this a bit, but the patterns remain.  In the UK sequence the early 2021 close-down is not really apparent.  The final graph shows the same broad pattern, though with an oddity around April 2020.

Note that the Y axis on these charts varies so care has to be taken in reading across charts.

What other comments might be made?  First, the latter part of 2021 has seen a better performance from Scottish retailing (partly to do with weaker comparators no doubt) and it is only in the very recent month(s) that this has reversed. Secondly, the double dip pattern of the 2020/21 sequence is well marked.

Retailers must be concerned that Omicron is going to see these sames pattern return.  One hopes not, as the sector has been radically affected over the last two years, as the first set of graphs so vividly portrays.

Posted in BRC, Covid19, Food Retailing, Lockdown, Non-food retailing, Pandemic, Retail Sales, Retailers, Sales, Scotland, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Scottish Retailing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2021 : the year in retrospect

My reflections this time last year noted that in the ten years of running this blog, 2020 had seen it attract the most visitors in a year.  2020 saw more than 70% more visitors than any previous year.

Well, the volume in 2021 has matched that of last year and even seen a few hundred more visitors.

In looking at the posts that attracted that volume in 2020 I divided them into three sections. First, was food retailing change, which included the top post (on grocery market shares in the UK 2020).  Second, and not at all surprisingly was the impact of Covid.  Then third were what I called the outliers (and included posts on Co-operative Tokens and London’s Welsh Dairies).

I concluded that 2021 was bound to be better but we had to reinvent places to attract people.

The top posts in 2021 bear a striking similarity to those of 2020 with only 4 new posts making the top 10.  Some of my old posts have an enduring appeal it seems (or people still can’t quite believe what they are reading). As last year I can perhaps categorise the top 10:

Food Retailing Change

Two posts make the top ten using the Kantar data, but not my 2021 update post.  The top post again is Grocery Market Shares in the UK 2020, supported by Twenty-One Years of UK Grocery Retailing Change (#4). There remains an interest in these market share reports, probably mainly from students, with UK a bigger search term than GB.

A New Future for Scotland’s Towns

Not surprisingly the release in February 2020 of the report of the review of the Town Centre Action Plan, chaired and written by myself, drew a lot of attention.  Three posts on the blog made the top 10; the webinar on the launch (#6), my introduction to the report (#7) and a post that summarised the main recommendations of the report (stop doing harm to our town centres – #10). Given the full report is available from the Government and the Review websites, this seems a reasonable coverage.

Retail Change

A pair of posts on aspects of current retail change provide a further strand, one positive and one negative.  The former on the new wave of town centre cinemas came in at #2, whilst a post on John Lewis Leaving Aberdeen, was post #8.  Two very different views on the reinvention of places we need.

The Outliers (or history?)

As last year the top 10 is filled out with some outliers.  Two are the same as last year, and all three have an historic dimension.  London’s Welsh Dairies has had an even stronger (#3) year than 2020 (#6) whilst the post on Co-operative Tokens, Sports Direct and the Bristol Pound again did well (#5 not #4).  The new post in this heading/strand – Retail change or why we fell in love with supermarkets (#9) – could be in the retail change section, but with its historical bias perhaps belongs here.

When I wrote last year’s summary I thought 2021 would be better than 2020, and it has been in so many ways.  But it has been challenging on so many levels, in so many ways, and particularly for the retail sector.  Let’s hope 2022 is a Happy New Year.

When it looked like things were getting better – my one and only face to face presentation in 2021 (at the SGF Annual Conference)
Posted in Aberdeen, Cooperative Tokens, Covid19, Food Retailing, History, John Lewis Partnership, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Pandemic, Public Policy, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail Policy, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Retailing, Social Renewal, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Covid Variants, Retailing and this Christmas

Access the Full Article at the Economics Observatory

A couple of weeks ago, I pondered putting together something again about the Christmas 2021 retail season.  Whilst there were strains over supply and labour availability, retailing seemed set for something much more normal.

At about the same time, the same idea occurred to the people running the Economics Observatory.  I have produced two pieces for them before, the first on the initial impact of Covid on retailing and the second on Covid and Christmas 2020.  This blog has featured these pieces as well (first and second). They also felt an update for Christmas 2021 was warranted.

Of course what then happened was the explosion of the Omicron variant, ‘Plan B’ in England, the reintroduction of restrictions on retailing and hospitality in Scotland and Wales and a general sense of nervousness and caution. And that seems not likely to be the end point.

To that can also be added ongoing stresses and strains in the supply chain due both to Brexit and Covid, a 10 year high inflation rate driven by energy and fuel costs rising, an interest rate rise from the Bank of England and general concern over the sector and economic position.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

So I pressed on, and my Economics Observatory piece is published today and can be found here.  I do not intend to replicate it here in full in this post, but I will try to summarise briefly the lines of argument.

Christmas is vital for retailers and the run-up this year has been anything but smooth.  The patterns of sales by sector, place and channel remain affected by the pandemic.  Operational challenges for retailers abound and will be added to by the new variant, isolation and the new regulations.  Retailers have gone to great lengths to keep retailing safe, operational and interesting in the run-up to Christmas.  But there is no doubt that there is more nervousness around than a few weeks ago, and uncertainty has returned.

We are though in a much better position than we were a year ago, and consumer confidence levels have been higher.  Yes, there are concerns and we do not know how things will pan out with Omicron. Vaccines and boosters though are at high levels and people seem to be respectful of the challenges, the steps taken and the need to be careful.  They are making their own choices to reduce activity. Whilst ‘lockdown’ is being bandied about, with sense we may be able to avoid the retail lockdowns of the last 21 months.

Christmas may not be normal again this year, but it will be better than last year hopefully. Much of the Christmas purchasing has taken place or is in place ahead of the weekend. There are great retailers, local and independent and others, doing all they can to deliver a great Christmas in what have been difficult circumstances.  They need your support.

The full Economics Observatory piece with a lot more detail, data and discussion can be accessed here.

Posted in Boxing Day, Brexit, Christmas, Cities, Consumers, Covid19, Government, Inflation, Internet shopping, Online Retailing, Opening Hours, Pandemic, Retailers, Supply Chains, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen Bees : Q-commerce, the on-demand world and the changing meaning of online retailing

Online retailing is now close to 30 years old.  It has seen an almost relentless growth over much of this period, accelerated by events such as Black Friday and Christmas, and more recently super-charged by the pandemic and lockdown.  The graph of the increasing penetration of online sales in the UK has become well known.


What is meant by online or internet shopping seems to be changing though.  The general understanding of online retailing is perhaps a retailer selling by a website or app and remotely fulfilling the order from a distant distribution centre.  Amazon is a classic incarnation of this, but it is a standard model across much of retailing.

A second variant of online retailing uses the same starting point of an app or a website, but with the fulfilment coming from a/the local store.  Tesco started with this store-based model and achieved great first mover advantages and national coverage. In some situations, and again Tesco is an example, retailers began to organise urban fulfilment from ‘dark’ stores; stores not open to the public but designed to satisfy high online demand in a defined high density area.  This gives penetration and coverage in dense urban areas, but without compromising store operations.  

In the pandemic we saw a major expansion of a local model of store fulfilment, with local fulfilment from local convenience stores.  Indeed, it was one of the elements of the success the convenience store sector has had over the last 20 months of Covid.   Services such as Snappy Shopper, Appy Shop and Jisp have emerged to help this process, and it is becoming increasingly common.

This local concept has developed further such that speed of delivery has become a general focus with within 15, 30 or 60 minutes promised.  Some of this can be store based but increasingly we see a trend to local ‘darkness’ as in dark kitchens or dark convenience stores.  Such “stores” offer a cut down range in small operations and focus on fast local delivery. Others are basing their operations on existing stores. This market is exploding and entrants such as Getir, Gorillas, Jiffy, Zapp and Weezy (now bought by Getir) are the tip of a growing iceberg. Tesco offer their Tesco Whoosh service (see also Sainsbury Chop Chop) and recently announced a trial with Gorillas using a unit within spare space in a Tesco store. With Deliveroo Hop teamed up with Morrisons, JustEat and Asda, and Ocado Zoom, ultra-fast delivery (q-commerce) is in a rapid experimentation and development phase.

There are many issues in this online model, not least sustainability and environmental aspects, though these may be mitigated in a local home delivery model, especially if returning to “old-fashioned” methods such as bikes. For the large multinationals there remain tax questions. For the workers there are questions over wages, contracts, status, holidays, pensions and the panoply of the gig economy. The costs of the service is an issue for customers and one has to question the viability of some of the models, given the cash being spent, the discounts offered and the lack of returns.

The popularity of ultra-fast delivery also asks questions of society and economy – it is hard for me to shake an analogy of a immobile Queen Bee (the consumer) being serviced by hordes of worker drones (the deliveries) – which is not what I think of as community.

There are concerns with “dark” operations and especially perhaps the smaller darker formats.  Dark convenience stores may be on industrial or warehouse sites or possibly on car parks deemed redundant or under used.  They can take life and business away from neighbourhoods, communities and high streets.  They are also likely to be business rated as non-retail businesses and so gain a cost advantage from this (and other operations) when compared to traditional convenience and retail sites.  This is despite essentially performing the same basic function. Staffing via the gig economy will be very different to physical stores. Our thinking about costs and competition, and comparisons with traditional operations, trail the business reality of these new approaches, and need to catch up.

This changing face of online retailing and its fulfilment raises some fundamental issues about how retailing integrates into our communities and how its services should be valued.  If we don’t think through the implications of ‘dark’ fulfilment sites then we risk damaging traditional retail business to the detriment of many. Some of their advantage stems from what they offer; some is due to the reduced cost base they can get away with (often from the taxation system). Either way they need to be treated seriously.

Posted in Amazon, Availability, Black Friday, Community, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Convenience stores, Customer Service, Dark Stores, Employment practices, Food Retailing, Home, Home Delivery, Internet, Internet shopping, Just in Time, Office for National Statistics, On demand retailing, Online Retailing, Q-commerce, Retailers, Retailing, Shopping | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Season’s Greetings

As Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) I get to put a Christmas message in the final bulletin of the year which goes out to members. This is an appropriate opportunity to reflect briefly on the last year generally and for STP in particular and I thought I might reproduce it here. More widely may I wish all readers wherever you are in the world, season’s greetings and a Happy New Year. May 2022 be an improvement.

“The continued rampaging of Covid19 throughout the world and its effects on economy and society need no rehearsal.  We have all been touched by it, and with the emergence of Omicron, are now facing up to dealing with yet more pressures.  Towns across Scotland have had a better year than 2020, with something more closely approaching normal, especially after the first few months of the year, and the relationship of citizens with place has deepened further.

But we still need to support our towns and STP has been delighted to play a leading role in this.  The Town Centre Action Plan Review, published in February 2021 as ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Towns’ sets out a medium term vision and path for our towns.  Whilst we await the formal response from Scottish Government and COSLA, we can already see some impact and alignment via the draft National Planning Framework 4 and the Place Based Investment Programme. It was a pleasure to lead and write the Review report and to see STP engage throughout 2021 with obtaining reactions and identifying practical ways forward to deliver the vision the Review provided.

More immediately though, STP has been instrumental in the Scotland Loves Local delivery programme and now the Scotland Loves Local Gift Card programme.  We have also been responsible for managing recovery funds (over £6m) targeted at local initiatives including via the BIDs.

STP exists to further the position of Scotland’s Towns and to coordinate, amplify and celebrate the great work that is done at the local level in towns across Scotland.  There have been many challenges over the last 20 months, but I have never been but amazed and humbled by what has been done on the ground in communities across Scotland.  It is that which makes me more convinced than ever that our towns have a bright, vibrant and successful future.  Thanks to all for all your efforts.

May I wish you all the very best for this festive season and for a successful, prosperous and hopefully more normal 2022. “

Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Stduies and Chair, Scotland’s Towns Partnership

Posted in Bids Scotland, Community, Covid19, Gift Card, Localisation, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Pandemic, Place Based Investment Programme, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research: change of editor

The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research: Vol  31, No 5

As many will know, I have been involved in editing journals for a very long time.  In particular I have been associated with the International Review of Retail Distribution and Consumer Research since its inception.  For the last few years I have been looking to step down as editor and have finally achieved this goal.  I have just completed the publication of the final issue under my editorship.

In the final issue under my tenure I have allowed myself the luxury of an editorial looking back over the founding and development of IRRDCR.  The editorial – origins, reflections and ending – started out as a brief goodbye, but somehow turned in a 6000 word musing on retail academic journal publishing, the rise of metrics on journals and academics and the changing nature of the academic endeavour (and its management).  Some of this I view as positive, but other changes have had a damaging impact on the subject and its study, and on journal (and other forms of) publication.

I don’t intend to summarise in depth the editorial here (and it is too long to provide), but if you are interested then the first 50 people should be able to download the final published version from here. A pre-proof version is provided as a pdf here.

I will provide though a brief description of its contents.  The first section provides details of the origins of IRRDCR (and why it is such a mouthful) arising as it did from the break-up of the relationships behind the short-lived International Journal of Retailing.  This section also explains the particular approach we (Founding Editor Professor John Dawson and I) stood for and tried to champion, arising from a distinctive European approach to retail research and a counterpoint to the approach to academic retail research in the United States.

The second section provides two sets of reflections; first on the editorial process and then secondly on retail research itself.  The IRRDCR began in pre-email and pre-internet times and ends where everything (almost) is automated.  There are benefits and drawbacks to this, and I discuss some of them.  Retail research itself has altered as the wider pressures of academia and its management of the ‘research process’ have taken their toll.  Again, I reflect on these changes and the stresses and strains they produce (as well as the benefits). I hope that through all this, IRRDCR has tried to reflect a more engaged and interesting agenda, but fear the trends are too powerful.

Anyhow, the International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research is now in new editorial hands, Professor Ulf Johansson from Lund University, and it will be interesting to see how it develops.


Leigh Sparks (2021) Editorial – origins, reflections and ending. The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 31, 5, 499-510.

Posted in Academics, Editorship, Education, IRRDCR, Research, Retail Research, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Oxford Street, Hull and Beyond

I have never really understood the fascination with Oxford Street as the retail heart of the UK.  I get that there are some great buildings, but as a shopping street, though not a great streetscape, it has never worked for me.  Too incoherent, too jammed with traffic and the retail is not always that inspiring.

But as I say, it does have some iconic and interesting buildings, though if Marks and Spencer have their way there will be one less.  Their proposals to knock down their store and replace it with a mixed used development has attracted considerable negativity, though the local council seems to be in favour.

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The criticism seems to be a three main bases.  First, the existing building is an attractive one that adds to the feel of Oxford Street as well as having architectural merit in its own right.  Secondly, knocking down buildings seems to be environmentally unfriendly and given M&S’s avowed Plan B type credentials, seems at odds with their rhetoric and position.  Then thirdly, the proposed replacement has been widely derided as bland, identikit, building by numbers.

One subset of this is the loss of embedded carbon from the existing building.  Why is this ignored and why does it so often seem to be cheaper, easier and more acceptable to knock down than refurbish and reuse?  There are obvious reasons for this but if we actually valued our built (carbon) environment properly and fed this into our encouragements/discouragements financially, perhaps we’d get a better outcome.

At the same time as the Oxford Street knockdown story, I was tweeted (thanks @sto_paul) a BBC story about a Hull Department Store being reused and reopened.  There are obvious differences between the stores and between Oxford Street and Hull, but I really hope this re-use works, both in its own right and to show what can be done.

And, at exactly the same time, my copy of a small visual pamphlet by Esther Johnson on “Ships in the Sky – the Co-op connection” landed on my front door.  Published by the modernist, it is a short pictorial story of the Alan Boyson mural, its Co-op background and design from the wider Co-op product and brands.  It is a little celebration of Co-op design building on how Ships in the Sky (and the two other murals) responded to the Co-op brief to ‘unite the community through art’.  I was particularly taken by the contrast between the wide shot of the Ships in the Sky and the close-up of one part of it (which I juxtapose below).  The detail showing a small section of the one million plus glass tesserae in the mural makes you comprehend the efforts, enormity, detail and beauty involved.

As with the Oxford Street M&S store, The Ships in the Sky was slated for demolition (I have written about this before), but thankfully that is no longer the case.  Whilst we can not (should not) save all our past, we need not to reach immediately for the wrecking ball but consider what these buildings and art say about us, the places they occupy and the organisations which shape them.


Johnson E. (2021) Ships in the Sky – The Co-op Connection. Available from

Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Campaigns, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Department Stores, Historic Shops, History, Hull, Marks and Spencer, Oxford Street, Places, Regeneration, Retail History, Streetscapes, Town Centres, Towns, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should every encouragement have an equal and opposite discouragement?

This is the third in a loosely linked series of posts arising in part from the publication of the draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) and the New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres

The first post was my discussion of aspects of the draft NPF4.  The second part was a reflection on retail impact assessments in the light of the climate emergency, the Scottish Government priorities and the TCAP Review/NPF4.  This final post is a reflection on the progress we need to make in the coming years.  It is based on the short presentation I made at the Scotland’s Towns Conference on the 23rd November (and a video of the session which included the Minister Tom Arthur MSP and Craig McLaren (RTPI) can be found on YouTube).

The basic contention of the presentation is that the second recommendation from the Town Centre Action Plan Review report is really important. The Draft NPF4 and a lot of the excellent work in the Place Based Investment Programme (PBIP) and other associated and aligned investments address the other two areas of recommendations. They are supportive and provide encouragement. We are left though with the existing developments and the advantages they have, which both continue the harm of recent decades and reduce the impact of the very positive developments in NPF4 and PBIP. Hence the question at the head of this post: Should every encouragement be accompanied by an equal and opposite discouragement?

The overheads from my presentation are available for download below, but do follow a well worn track (that is what I was asked to do).  The rest of the post is a short summary of what I tried to say.

“In any discussion of Scotland and towns it is worthwhile noting that we start from an enviable position.  The framework set out a decade plus ago has served us well and has been developed and enhanced substantially.  Scotland is seen as leading internationally in this regard.

As with any good set of policies the time comes to reflect on external factors and revised ambitions.  Covid, climate change and wellbeing have focused attention on what more we can do about towns and places in Scotland.  This led to the Town Centre Action Plan Review and the publication of A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres.  We have covered this background and the recommendations in this blog before.

Two of the three areas for recommendations are well underway.  NPF4 is a step forward and finance has been found and aligned to take initiatives forward.  Yes, there is more that can be done, but this is a good first six months.

The third area of recommendation – stop doing harm – was always going to be tougher.  It asks difficult questions of us all and can only really be addressed by all of us (governments, organisations and individuals) changing our behaviours.  This is a big ask and politically difficult (not least as aspects straddle administrations).  When we wrote the report we knew this was the most difficult and controversial area.  We also knew it was no quick fix, and no simple solutions are available.

But, if we are to do the right things for people, planet and the economy, we have to make a start.  We will not succeed by doing the same things we have for the last 50+ years only a little less badly.  We need to be bold and opt for radical change.  We need to tackle the damage we have inherited and done and that means an end to business as usual away from town and city centres.

The economy and society have changed, and our tax system has to catch up or it will be rendered irrelevant.  The pre-pandemic situation was not working for so many, so using Covid as an excuse to ‘return to normal’ is rather insulting.  Unless we deflect them, existing operations will continue to do harm, especially if we make life ever more difficult for our towns and cities.  And finally if we are to deliver agreed national policies on community wealth building, 20-minute neighbourhoods and wellbeing and inequalities, let alone deal with climate change, then we need to be bold and radical.  Time is short to make the necessary changes, as challenging as they are.

So, for every encouragement that we give, perhaps we should also ask for an opposite discouragement to maximise the impact of the good things we are doing?”

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Car Parking, Climate Emergency, community wealth building, Consumer Change, Government, High Streets, Housing, Internet shopping, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Place Based Investment Programme, Places, Planning, Policy, Politicians, Public Policy, Rates, Regulation, Retail Change, Retail Impact Assessments, Retail Planning, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Retail Impact Assessments: Time for a Rethink?

This is the second in a linked series of posts.  The next one reflects on existing out-of-town developments and what we need to do about them.  The first was on the draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4).  In that post the sequential test and the impact assessment of retail development was mentioned.  The latter issue is the focus of this post.

These comments are informed by some informal work I have been doing with some local authorities around their response to proposed out-of-town developments, in the light of A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres and the recommendations and policy background it contains.  The focus is on whether our traditional model of retail impact assessments is fit for purpose, given the change in retailing, the climate emergency and now the draft NPF4, amongst other general contextual and especially policy changes.  It is hardly a spoiler to note at this point that I conclude that we need to rethink impact assessments.  Soundly based impact assessments (not just retail) are required if we continue to consider any out-of-town or indeed edge-of-town developments, but the entire basis and assumptions on which they are founded needs to be reconsidered. The current approach is simply not up to our needs. Why do I conclude that?

Looking at these recent retail impact assessments it is possible to identify some common issues.  This is in part is because they follow the methodology set out in 2007 in the Scottish Government publication ‘Town Centres and Retailing Methodologies’ (though this publication seems hard to find online now, or maybe it was just me, so here is a link to a Technical note from Aberdeen which covers the approach).  This though is the first part of the issue: are methodologies agreed in the mid-2000s and brought in to reduce disagreement or wrangling over data and numbers, really appropriate anymore?  Predating the age of austerity, the rapid rise of online retail sales, let alone the climate emergency, their relevance must be questionable. Add in to that the recognition that town centres are more than retail and need to be considered in their widest sense, and policy developments around The Place Principle, 20-minute Neighbourhoods and Community Wealth Building. The world has changed, but we seem to be accepting the old approaches nonetheless.

To example further some of these issues, we can pose a few illustrations of topics in the operation of retail impact assessments:

(a) How is the rise of online retailing handled? If this is now c30% penetration in retail sales what does this mean for floorspace need and the future of existing floorspace?

(b) Out-of-home eating, and also food and meal delivery to home has exploded.  Again, how is this being factored into changing convenience retail space needs? 

(c) How has the modernisation of the convenience store sector been incorporated? There has been a remarkable transformation of many convenience operations themselves as well as changing consumer patterns in this sector.

(d) The impact of the pandemic is the latest challenge to travel patterns, and not just in terms of local and convenience.  How are these new pattens being accommodated?

These points can be added to by some other practical and policy issues.

(1) The developments I have seen have chosen to put various components together (including drive-thru’s) and then used the sequential test to say only an out-of-town site can cope with them.  This is despite each individual element being already present separately elsewhere. This declaration of a singularity seems arbitrary to say the least and in some cases there is no rationale for why these uses would be in combination.

(2) The methodologies need catchments to ascribe impacts.  The definition of the catchment is based on car travel.  Policy now is to reduce such travel so what does this imply for how we should define catchments?  Perhaps we need to define them by who can not access such developments, rather than who can by car?

(3) There is an informal acceptable impact benchmark of c10%.  This though predates the pandemic, climate emergency and the internet and given store numbers and floorspace issues, has to be called into question. Given our town centre first principle why is any adverse impact “acceptable”?

(4) There is also a current lack of concern about climate issues generally. If sustainability, community wealth building and net zero are the policy backgrounds, then how should (if they can at all?) retail impact assessments incorporate these? How do we for example reflect a desire for more local, community focused operations?

I am sure there are other issues, and some of these might be able to be ameliorated.  I am also sure some proponents of out-of-town schemes will say they can accommodate any such problems.  I am not though convinced. And this is where the weaker words of NPF4 bother me (see my last post); could we not just say no to such things, because of the issues we face in terms of place, society, economy and climate?  It would be simpler, cheaper and faster to enshrine this even more firmly in policy and not permit the ‘wriggle room’ that the sequential test and retail impact assessments have often demonstrated in the past.  A rethink at least, if not an abolition, is needed.

As said at the outset, this is the second in a linked series of posts this week.  The first was on the draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4).  The final one reflects on existing out-of-town developments and what we need to do about them. 

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, community wealth building, Consumer Change, Convenience, Convenience stores, Home Delivery, Internet shopping, Land Use Planning, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Pandemic, Places, Planning, Public Policy, Retail Change, Retail Impact Assessments, Retail Planning, Retail Policy, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Planner, Scottish Retailing, Sequential Approach, Spatial Planning, Town & Country PLanning, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

National Planning Framework 4 – the consultation

This is the first of three loosely linked posts arising from the draft National Planning Framework 4. This one is on the draft itself; the second is on Retail Impact Assessments; and the third is on implications for existing developments.

A few weeks ago, the long anticipated draft National Planning Framework 4 (The National Spatial Strategy for Scotland 2045) was published and is now open for consultation.  You can download the draft and the details of the consultation here.  Whilst at over 125 pages, the draft is a bit of a slog and there are numerous specific consultation questions, it is something anyone interested in the future shape of Scotland should become engaged with; especially if you are interested in towns and places.

Now I won’t swear that I have read every word, but I did try.  My focus in particular here is on aspects in the draft that align with and have impact on town centres and retail.  This National Spatial Strategy for Scotland 2045 is presented in four parts; the strategy, national developments, the policy handbook and delivery.  The focus is on ‘Future-proof places’ and the policies come under headings of places that are sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive.  These deliver on principles of:

  • compact growth
  • local living
  • balanced development
  • conserving and recycling assets
  • urban and rural synergy
  • just transition

Taking these on face value, they provide a focus for a different development path for the future, aided by the strong presence throughout of the Place Principle, 20-minute neighbourhoods and to a lesser extent, community wealth building.  People and place are positioned before travel and the aim is to reduce unsustainable travel and the use/reliance on the private car. These approaches are given a stronger statutory basis, here and at various planing levels, which is to be welcomed.

The devil of course is in the detail, and its implementation.  The section of most interest to me perhaps is the one on distinctive places (p97-99 and p104 especially) and the policies on centres (policy 24), retail (policy 25), town centre first assessment (policy 26), town centre living (policy 27) and vacant and derelict land (policy 30).  Much of this section accords with the thrust of the recent Town Centre Action Plan Review and its report “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”.  Again, this is to be warmly welcomed, but more consideration of detail and operation may perhaps be needed.

The Retail policy focuses development on town centres, building on the work of the last decade or so. However I am worried that the phrase used is ‘should not be supported’ for out-of-town locations; why is this not ‘must not be supported’ if we want to be serious?  It removes any ambiguity.  This is the same for edge of town developments, where they ‘should’ not be supported unless in development plans. For me this leaves wriggle room on a number of dimensions – why? 

It also seems that the sequential approach (and thus Retail Impact Assessments) remain, though sense in their use, given 20-minute neighbourhoods, is encouraged. This is seen more clearly in policy 26 on town centre first assessment, which outlines the sequential approach, but does then seek to ensure proposals are appropriate in scale, the impacts are assessed and importantly ‘the proposal will not adversely impact on action to tackle climate change by generating significant levels of additional journeys with the reliance on the private car’.  This reads fine, but I can see legal issues about ‘significant’ and ‘additional’ to start with. My next post is on aspects of Retail Impact Assessments and some problems I think they have.

We discussed the draft NPF4 at our session at the Scotland’s Towns Partnership Conference last week. A video of our session which included myself, Tom Arthur MSP and Craig McLaren on place and policy is available on YouTube). An interactive poll showed that attendees though the draft was on the right lines, but some wanting it to be stronger.  I am encouraged by my first reading of the draft, and thus my initial reaction was positive so I ‘voted’ for ‘right lines’ in the poll, but I am wondering if a more careful read might tip me over into wanting stronger words in places?

That though is a consideration for the next few weeks and for my response to the consultation.  I would encourage everyone to have a look and state their views. The Scottish Government have outlined the consultation opportunities thus:

“Draft NPF4 is now subject to Parliamentary scrutiny for up to 120 days and the Scottish Government is inviting representations until 31 March 2022. We are encouraging the submission of responses through the Scottish Government’s consultation portal.

We want to encourage responses to the consultation from a wide range of interests and have therefore prepared a range of resources to help you respond. These resources include:

– emerging details of a range of online discussions which you can sign up for.

– access to online material on NPF4, including on regional and thematic issues.

– details of the 18 proposed national developments.

– details of a community grant scheme to support communities respond to the consultation. These, and other resources, can be found on”

As a final note I would say (and thanks to a twitter user for this – I apologise for not remembering who) that once you see the graphic as a head you can’t not see it (and good to see it is looking towards Europe).

As noted above this is the first in a series of three posts this week on NPF4, Retail Impact Assessments, and what do we do about existing developments.

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Climate Emergency, community wealth building, Government, Land Use Planning, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Places, Planning, Policy, Public Policy, Retail Impact Assessments, Retailing, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Planner, Scottish Retailing, Sequential Approach, Spatial Planning, Town & Country PLanning, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments