Scotland's retailers have called for action from “government at all levels” after new figures showed a drop in shoppers and a rise in the number of vacant shops in town centres.

Research by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) found 10.6 per cent of shops were vacant last month – up from 10.4 per cent in June – which means that almost one in every nine retail premises is now sitting empty.

According to the figures, footfall numbers were unchanged from June’s rate, but were 2.4 per cent lower than a year ago.

SRC said encouraging shoppers back was “crucial” to reducing the number of vacant premises.

The SRC/Springboard report for July found an 8.8 per cent rise in shoppers at retail parks.

SRC director David Lonsdale, said: “This is a rather cheerless set of figures, heralding a third successive spike in the shop vacancy rate in our town centres coupled with a further drop in shopper footfall.

“Retailers have a role to play but we also need to see government at all levels consider what further steps could be taken.

“For example, local councils should place more emphasis on accessible and affordable parking and a building standards system that better facilitates retail refurbishment and expansion.

“At a time when retailers’ margins are thin or non-existent, government needs to get a firmer grip on tax and regulatory costs, which have mushroomed, starting by making it less costly for firms to invest in commercial premises.”

The Scottish Government launched a Town Centre Action Plan about 18 months ago to work with local councils to regenerate town centres and help fill empty high streets shops.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our town centres should be attractive focal points for the community, and we have invested heavily in transforming them in recent years, including through a

£60 million town centre regeneration fund to help breathe new life into those that needed revitalising.

“Together with local councils, we have also taken forward a Town Centre Action Plan, and have provided funding to help bring empty town centre properties back into use.”

Professor Leigh Sparks at Stirling University’s Institute for Retail Studies said the SRC’s study failed to give the true picture about what was happening in town centres.

The academic, who is also chairman of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, a body that represents town centres, said: “The SRC put out springboard figures with a slight increase in vacancy rates and a decrease in footfall but I’m never too sure we are measuring anything that is very useful by measuring footfall.

“It is interesting that Scottish figures for footfall are down in Scotland over this period compared to elsewhere in the UK but circumstances are different in Scotland, the school holidays were different and people were away on holiday so those comparisons are often rather overplayed.

“You need to look at the longer-term trends. We need to understand if they are covering the whole of Scotland or are they covering particular parts. I don’t think there is much too useful in footfall at the moment.

“We would like to see more people in town centres and more business and hopefully that will start to come. The town centre action plan through Scotland’s Towns Partnership is something that’s been going on for a long time and it isn’t just retail, it’s about all activities in town centres.

“The town centre action plan is 18 months old. The real actions have started in the last year from the ground up and we’ll see different patterns in different places as people engage with it much more. It is early days for the town centre action plan but things are being done.”

Scotland’s Federation of Small Businesses said the closure of local banks, police offices, courts and cuts in public-sector jobs have had a dramatic effect on the number of people spending money in town centres.

Its head of external affairs, Colin Borland, said: “There is no doubt they’ve had a pretty tough time really since the financial crash and the recession. These figures underline the fact that the future of our town centres are not going to lie exclusively in retail – we really need strong, vibrant mix of different types of businesses so you are attracting a much broader range of people.”

Source: The National

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