By David Lonsdale

The past year has been incredibly difficult for everyone. For Scottish retail, Covid has accelerated the changes that were already under way within the industry.

A year ago, the Scottish Retail Consortium said the industry was facing in to its greatest crisis – regrettably that prediction proved accurate. The brutal impact of Covid, combined with highly restrictive regulations allied to immense structural change, has pushed much of the industry towards – and in some cases beyond – breaking point.

Retailers and their staff have responded magnificently during the crisis. They’ve gone above and beyond, kept the nation supplied and fed, adapted to new ways of working, and complied with each twist and turn arising from Government restrictions.

Yet all that hasn’t been enough to inoculate shopkeepers from the impact of the crisis. Retail sales slumped by one-fifth, footfall collapsed by three-quarters, and store vacancies spiked to a six-year high.

There is some relief coming. Next week will see the start of a gradual reopening of retail – with garden centres and homeware stores able to open their doors. The rest of retail will follow later in the month.

The reopening of retail will unlock consumer spending and get the economy moving again. Reopening, however, will itself not be a panacea. Shops will be unable to trade at capacity due to physical distancing, and parts of the ecosystem upon which retail depends – such as eating out – remain closed. Worries over the jobs market persist.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect an election campaign to focus on prospects for retailers. Yet it should. Retail is Scotland’s largest private sector employer, with 230,000 directly employed and many more in the supply chain. Shops are the key vector for domestic consumption – providing the route to market for indigenous producers. The route to recovery requires retail.

Prior to the pandemic Scotland’s economic growth rate was decidedly humdrum. Getting the conditions right holds out the prospect of growing Scottish retail by £2 billion over the decade ahead. That would benefit career opportunities, wages, and high streets.

That’s the key point from the SRC’s Holyrood manifesto, Retail’s Agenda for Reform & Recovery. Tangible headway has been made in recent years on several public policy fronts affecting the industry, including commencing work on a Scottish retail strategy. If done well, that strategy should deliver a more coherent approach from Government – a substantial prize for a sector with innumerable touchpoints with the state.

The next administration should give retailers breathing space to recover from the pandemic, without the imposition of new red tape. Plans to consult on prohibiting shops from opening on New Year’s Day, and recommendations from a Government-appointed body for new levies on business rates and parking outwith town centres, are an inauspicious start.

The rates relief which has been on offer to shops during the crisis has been invaluable. The next Government needs to put business rates on an affordable and sustainable footing, rather than revert to pre-Covid levels which saw the business rate levied at a 21-year high. The business rate has risen by one-fifth since the start of the last decade. We need a firm timeline for lowering it, and the higher property rate surcharge scrapped so that the level playing field with England is restored.

Finally, the cost of living needs kept down. Proposals to reform council tax are a hardy perennial at elections, but such plans must keep in mind the impact on household disposable incomes.

If retail is to maximise its contribution to the country’s economic and social renewal then our next Government and MSPs should get behind it.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium