Retailing in Scotland’s Largest Towns and Cities 2015

Panelists and Presenters at the Third LDC/University of Stirling Retailing In Scotland’s Towns Summit
Audrey Michie (Aberdeenshire Council), Matthew Hopkinson (Local Data Company), Margaret McCulloch MSP (Convenor, Cross-Party Group of Towns and Town Centres), Phil Prentice (Scotland’s Towns Partnership), Leigh Sparks (University of Stirling), Jane Bradley (Chair, Scotsman)

On Tuesday, ourselves at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling and the Local Data Company presented our third annual Retail Review of Scotland’s largest towns and cities. The headlines are that vacancy rates continue to fall, adjustment processes are underway, but the trajectories across towns and cities appear to be differing quite markedly. Some place managers have seen what needs to be done and are beginning to grasp the changes needed; others are not in the same place.

The general introduction from the report is reproduced below, together with the press release with some headline figures. The summary report is available for download via the Local Data Company, here.

Detailed work to understand what is going on in individual towns is best taken forward by local dialogue with the Local Data Company, to see exactly what they can offer. They can be contacted at:

Matthew Hopkinson, The Local Data Company, 20 Broadway Studios, Hammersmith Broadway, London W6 7AF. 020 3111 4393


The state of our high streets and our town centres has been in the news since the onset of recession. For many the recession and the decline of retailing on the high street are causally linked. This though is overly simplistic and misses the complexity of towns and town centres and the long run structural changes that are impacting our society and economy. Understanding the dimensions of these changes has never been more important.

In England, the Portas review focused attention on high streets, whereas in Scotland the wider and more holistic concept of towns and town centres was the focus of the Fraser review. Since it reported in mid 2013, the Scottish Government, with cross-party support, has developed and implemented its Town Centre Action Plan, funded a series of demonstration projects which run through to March 2016 and has launched a variety of other initiatives, some visible as for example in the form of publications and others less visible simplifying, joining up and focusing town centre activity within and across bodies and groups. All of these are also benefitting from wider changes including the focus on community and social justice; at the heart of which is the notion of people and place.

It has to be recognised however that towns are complex entities and that we have been neglecting their hearts for decades. Change will be a slow process and we should not expect rapid results, though as momentum is generated there will be self-reinforcing effects. The focus on the town centre in Scotland and the multiple uses of town centres also point to the requirement, as in the Town Centre First Principle, to think beyond retailing, both as a cause and as a “solution” for the town centre and high street within.

Sometimes this, very welcome, emphasis on the holistic town centre becomes parlayed into a view that retailing in town centres does not matter or is not important. It does, and it is. Retailing alone will not be the saviour of towns, but ignoring its potential and actual role will diminish the chances of success in reinventing our towns. Scotland is moving in the right direction, but it requires further investment in community and place and a coordinated understanding of activities and impacts, including those in and of the retail sector.

With all this action going on, let alone the continuing changes in the retail sector, the (perhaps) reviving economy and changing business requirements, it is imperative that we use the best possible data to describe, analyse and understand the dimensions of changes that are underway and the impacts various interventions are having. We have twice before presented our Scottish Retail Summit and associated report on retailing in our leading towns and cities (December 2013 and December 2014). Since December 2014, we have updated the data, repeated and extended the analysis and have taken the opportunity of more years of data to focus on change since 2012. Our focus is on retail, and whilst we recognise that town centres are more than just retailing, retailing remains a sound barometer of their state of health.

Press Release and Headline Findings

A new report published today by The Local Data Company (LDC) and The Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, on Scotland’s top 100 cities and towns reveals significant and new data on the health of Scotland’s high streets.

In retail terms, Scotland has many similarities with much of the UK outside London. LDC figures show that Scotland is slightly more multiple (chain retailer) oriented than GB as a whole (36% v 35% of shops); this is a narrower difference than in 2013 when the equivalent values were 35% (Scotland) and 33% (GB). There is little difference in terms of comparison or convenience proportions between the years (30% and 14% in Scotland versus 30% and 13% in GB). There is, however, a difference in vacancy rates with Scotland reporting 12.9% retail vacancy in 2015 against 13.0 % for GB. The gap has narrowed markedly since 2013, which showed retail vacancy rates of 14.5% in Scotland and 13.6% in GB. However it is widely known that there are large variations amongst the English regions with the strength of the South East and London outweighing more difficult situations elsewhere. This suggests Scotland is performing quite well.

Key findings (2014 v 2015)


The vacancy rate continues to decline in Scotland and in Scottish towns and cities. This is reflective of both the local economy and of restructuring changes occurring in town and city centres. The mix of businesses is altering and the adjustment process to the new form of town centres is underway, more strongly in some places than others. Towns are on differing trajectories reflecting their assets and opportunities and the strategy and vision of their local management. We can identify these differing trajectories through the direction and strength of change in vacancy rates, number of premises, persistent vacancy, independent retailer proportions, charity shop penetration and the mix of types of retail businesses. Distinctiveness is to be welcomed as these processes take hold, though there needs to be caution in some places where there is an over-reliance on some lines of business and thus perhaps insufficient diversity being generated.