By Kristy Dorsey

Scottish shop vacancies jumped to a six-year high in the first quarter of this year, with the rate of empty outlets highest among shopping centres.

In figures said to lay bare the “maelstrom” wrought by the pandemic, the latest Vacancy Monitor released today by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) shows that 15.3 per cent of all shops are now lying empty, up from 14.4% in the final three months of last year. Compared to the first quarter of 2020, the vacancy rate is up by 2.4 percentage points.

One out of five shopping centre units are now unoccupied, with the vacancy rate rising to 20.1% from 18.2% in the previous quarter. Lucy Stainton of Local Data Company, which produces the monitor in conjunction with the SRC, said their lower proportion of “essential” retailing and reliance on declining categories such as fashion, department stores and casual dining has left shopping centres particularly exposed to the effects of the pandemic.

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“That being said, the early indications from the first few days of ‘unlocking’ have shown there is still significant demand for physical retail and eating out,” she added. “Hopefully, as consumer confidence continues to build momentum with reduced Covid-19 cases, more of the population vaccinated and warmer weather, further fall-out from the pandemic might be mitigated somewhat.”

On the high street, vacancies increased from 13.5% to 13.9%. Retail park vacancies rose by a full percentage point to 12.9%.

David Lonsdale, director of the SRC, said this was the first time that the overall vacancy figure had breached the 15% mark. Almost one in six premises are empty, which is above the UK average, and it remains “far from certain” that the vacancy rate has crested.

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“This has been the most bruising period for many of Scotland’s retailers, and even with shops now permitted to re-open the fact is that large swathes of the sector face an uncertain future,” he said.

“The next devolved government needs to respond to this reality with a recovery plan that pauses any new non-Covid related red tape to allow the industry to recover by reducing the costs of doing business and supporting consumer spending by keeping down the cost of living.

“Retail can play a massive role in the economic recovery but it needs continued support to do so.”