“No Town Immune”: Data and reporting

On Tuesday afternoon, I was contacted by a journalist (Stephen Naysmith) from The Herald about the upcoming Local Data Company/PwC report on high streets.  He sent me the (then) embargoed press release.  I attach it here for those interested and the piece that ran in The Herald with some comment from me is here.

Wednesday morning saw the story being the lead in some papers and on the front page of others e.g. Scotsman (though the headline seemed to change from the first edition), National, TelegraphThe BBC reported it too under the headline of “no town immune”, as the press release had said.  What really got me was the looseness of reporting in some instances and the blaming of the SNP for the damage to the high streets in the other e.g. Express.

SNP Express

I took to twitter with some thoughts (read from bottom up).

Perhaps the key tweet was:

LDC #2

Given the interactions on Twittter I write down some of my thoughts here. It’s important to note perhaps that I do tend to get agitated about data consistency and comparability (ask my colleagues in the USP consortium) and irritated by the mis-use of data by newspapers and politicians.

So what does the press release show?

  1. The data for Scotland is based on the 8 largest towns and on multiple retailers (5 or more stores) only. This is partial a reflection of the ‘high street’.  There is an issue thus of coverage for Scotland.
  2. The spatial boundaries for these towns and centres are postal towns in Scotland and not town centres as in England and Wales. There is an immediate issue of comparability.
  3. The Scottish decline of -4.5% reported vs elsewhere at -2.6% is calculated on this limited data set for Scotland. There appear to be 8 towns used in Scotland and 492 elsewhere in England and Wales. This seems neither consistent nor comparable.
  4. The figures for rise and decline by sector in the press release e.g. for takeaways, is more ambiguous and I am unclear on what data set this is calculated. It seems to say that 25% of all female clothes shops in Scotland have closed in 2017 and that we increased the number of Chinese takeaways in Scotland by 50% in the same period. I knew the Scottish diet was bad but really?? I assume these figures are derived from the 8 towns used, but given the data is meant to refer only to multiple retailers how can this be?
  5. The press release talks about ‘no town immune’ yet the data for Scotland refers to only 8/479 towns in Scotland. It also does not cover high streets in spatial or operational terms e.g. no independent retailers or small chains are included in the data.
  6. The headlines blaming the SNP can not be laid at the feet of the press release. All regions show decline, though the press release does point out the claimed higher rate in Scotland.  Sub-editors and editors (and proprietors) should carry the blame for this politicisation and for not looking at the data.
  7. Labour and Lib Dem politicians who jumped on the story in the press and blamed the SNP for destroying small businesses and rural towns should really take a look at the data and report/press release before they comment. The data do not cover small businesses and do not cover rural towns in Scotland. Their comments are inaccurate.

All this is a shame as some points from the report and data did need to be made, but got lost in the coverage:

  1. We are seeing declines in multiple outlets in retail – in high streets, retail parks and shopping centres – and there is a retail, and a place/town, issue. But as this blog has noted for years, this is a structural realignment deriving from decades of over expansion and from changing technology and consumer behaviour.  We should not be surprised by what is happening (see also Matthew Hopkinson’s blog) but record and recognise the changes and consider what needs to be done to make places and retail fit for the next decade rather than seek to expect to return to the 1980s or earlier.
  2. The Local Data Company (and we work with them) does a very valuable job in providing data and has a good coverage of places with regular updating. It does work in Scotland in town more than the 8 places in Scotland reported here.  In an ideal world LDC would be funded to provide a census of retail outlets on a regular basis – they have a good base from which to start and links to other, official, sources would only improve this.  But partial data and on non-comparable bases help no-one, especially when the data are willfully misused (which of course is not LDC/PwC’s fault).
  3. Across the country towns/places are trying to develop positively and as behaviours change meet the needs in retail and other sectors. Some of this involves building new business, supporting independents and seeking innovation and diversity in retail and across sectors. Some of this is Scotland having a stronger rates relief system for independent and small businesses than elsewhere.  Narrow foci or political posturing fails citizens across the board.

No town immune – perhaps not; but not on this evidence and certainly not on some of this reportage. Check the press release and the coverage and judge for yourself.



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 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Academics, Closure, Data, Government, High Streets, Independents, Internet, Local Data Company, Online Retailing, Places, Retail Failure, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retailing, SNP, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, Vacancies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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