Local Data Company/University of Stirling Scotland’s Towns Report: Event Update

As forewarned in a post a couple of weeks ago, last Tuesday saw a wide range of people gather to hear about the work we have been doing with The Local Data Company analyzing some of their data on Scotland’s Towns. The venue – KPMG’s offices, with their great view to the Castle – provided a suitable backdrop to discuss change in retailing. The event  – excellently chaired by Jane Bradley (@janekbradley), The Scotsman’s Consumer Affairs Correspondent seemed to provoke a wide range of interest and ideas.

Matthew Hopkinson (LDC), Jane Bradley (The Scotsman) Leigh Sparks (University of Stirling)

Matthew Hopkinson (LDC), Jane Bradley (The Scotsman) Leigh Sparks (University of Stirling)

There were two presentations, by Matthew Hopkinson (@MattheHopkinson) of the Local Data Company and myself (@sparks_stirling) outlining the background to the data collection by LDC and the broad trends they are seeing in the UK and then the detail of the analysis of the broad patterns identified in the analysis for Scotland’s Towns. This was followed by a lively question and answer session. There was obvious interest in the room in the work and its implications and this was also shown by the extensive media coverage that day (details can be found of some of the pieces – such as the one in the Scotsman – in the media commentary section of this blog). Douglas Fraser (@BBCDouglasF) of BBC Scotland also took the data and produced a great segment for the evening news:

The audience was drawn from a variety of organizations, including Scottish and local government, retailers, Business Improvement Districts and Town Centre Managers as well as other interested agencies. Malcolm Fraser, the architect and author of the National Towns Centre Review (the Fraser Review) was present and commented on the usefulness and importance of using such data to take the discussion and analysis of Scotland’s Towns forward.

Leigh Sparks, Malcolm Fraser and Matthew Hopkinson

Leigh Sparks, Malcolm Fraser and Matthew Hopkinson

There was a lot to debate about the report and the issues it raises. In the New Year I will reflect in more detail about the presentations, the data presented and the implications of the full report. Anyone interested at this time in the overall findings can obtain a Free Summary from the Local Data Company (0203 111 4393); this presents our commentary and headlines from the data. Introductions from Matthew, Jane and myself can be found in the videos below:

Three particular issues perhaps generated the most potential for debate. One of the elements of the report is the proportion of various retail outlets in towns, and we put together alcohol, money, gambling and charity shops in one calculation. Malcolm Fraser sparked a discussion by saying we should not see charity shops in such a negative light and these associations were not appropriate (we had also done charity shops on their own – unlike the other types –  as we had half thought this might be an issue). But if you look at what has been happening in Wales and some of the commentary about clusters of uses, including charity shops, then  it is clear that there are a variety of views about the benefit and otherwise of charity shops.  This is an issue that deserves more airing, especially around clustering.

The second topic, almost inevitably, was the potential structure and nature of retailing in Scotland as an independent country. Would independence have any effect on retailing and towns? My current answer to that is that it depends on policy pursued in Scotland and the Remainder of the UK. But, UK retailers are already  concerned about divergence of requirements in a our devolved world. Independence just adds to the uncertainty and possibly complexity. Whether it is good or bad for them – or more accurately which retailers it is good or bad for – would depend on policies and practices.  Again there is more to be said in due course on this.

What has been clear thus far is that Scotland does seem to have a desire to focus on towns and to recognise the need to provide reasons for people to engage with place; one of the reasons will undoubtedly be retailing, the nature and significance of this will depend on the local context and local opportunities, as Scotland’s towns vary so much.

The final issue for today, and one thing that I hoped came through clearly in the presentation – and in the report and summary – is the massive potential to use data such as that collected by The Local Data Company for a much more informed and detailed analysis and discussion about the state of retailing in Scotland’s Towns. This depth of data, and its potential at so many levels can drive local and national understanding and policy. One of my other tasks in the New Year is to flesh out exactly what could be done, and what else could be added to what is already there.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
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5 Responses to Local Data Company/University of Stirling Scotland’s Towns Report: Event Update

  1. Dave Sutton says:

    Have added comments at http://www.linkedin.com
    Yes – a free summary – but some £1,895 for the full report!!! So why should Council’s contribute their data? Without the detailed background data we can’t say how accurate the data is for the towns where we do hold detailed data. Surely we need to find better and more effective ways of collecting and sharing data.

    We also need to get agree what data needs to be collected as part of the proposed Scottish annual/ biannual health checks (in draft SPP). Vacancy rates and footfall changes provide the usual headline starting points. But a key problem is the various and different vacancy rates … BRC (retail only – around 10.1%) data vs LDC (businesses – around 14.5% av in Scotland) vs the actual situation on the ground (inc leisure, community and public services). None as yet measure town centre housing use – so if we envisage “living towns” – then surely we need to agree an appropriate wider based definition?. And even then – this data is based on numbers of units – and varies if you actually analyse by sq m (as required for legitimate planning) or sq ft (if you are comparing rental rates).
    And this is before considering wider issues like the effectiveness of town promotion and marketing, or on accessibility issues where there are little standards for bus and rail data – or with car parking and disabled parking where there are minimal standards outwith the ParkMark scheme.

    The question is also raised re Scottish dimension. I would suggest that there is a need for UK comparisons. For example to assess the supermarket tax in NI and the effectiveness of its use in reducing business rates (which has been backed off from in Scotland). Whilst we have at last seen policies start to focus on a “town centres first” approach (without I think as yet fully understanding the implications – or tackling the contradictions with, for example,the courts review) – towns are not yet reflected in the dedicated national resources – as already separately allocated directly to cities and to rural areas.

    This Scottish summary also adds a few items not previously discussed:
    (i) % AMGC (alcohol, money, gambling and charity) – and questioning whether charity shops should be included. The report also purports to assess “independent” shops present.
    (ii) % of consistent longer term vacancies.
    We are assessing whether we can do a similar assessment from our data.

    So whilst the LDC/ Stirling Scottish Summary provides a helpful start in raising relevant issues from such data – we need the data out in the open for all – with agreed protocols and reporting target timescales. This should be the basis for a better factual and informed debate about the state of retailing in Scotland’s Towns.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Thanks for the taking the time to comment. Happy to chat to you directly about the issues raised if you wish. There is much in your comment that I would agree with. “We need to find better and more effective ways of sharing data” is the right sentiment. The problem has been that we have not been able to persuade government to take the steps needed to provide consistent, comparable and continuous (or at least frequent) data. Even when extortation to have comparable collection across Scotland has been made, what we find is inconsistent and incomplete. We also have the situation where public data is kept on different scales and geographies and is very hard to access (sometimes). I do not see this changing very soon – but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

    So what the LDC have done is build a system from the ground up and to attempt to continuously add to this by consistent and regular data collection – essentially an annual census of retail and business ground floor activities in towns across GB. To this basic data set (geo-coded so that geographies can be pre- or user- defined) they are attempting to add a variety of other third party and wider data (size, rates, rent etc). What we have then is the beginnings of what we would both want and from that much can be done. But is there more to be done – absolutely.

    Your question about the pricing of the full report is better addressed to LDC as I am not involved in that side, though I do know they always welcome discussion about what they can and can not do for commercial and government clients. But following from above, LDC have invested in building the data and the systems, when others have decided not to.

    Finally. if you do have data that is potentially useful for looking at vacancy in a more detailed and nuanced way (persistence, churn are various dimensions of what we are thinking about here) then I would be really interested in having a discussion with you. We have a dozen years worth of data for two parts of Glasgow for which we have walked the streets and have begun to think how this lets us think about vacancy in better ways than simply x%.We’d love to add more to this.

    As I started out – great comments, and we should be having a stronger national discussion of our needs in this area.

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