Local authorities own over 1,100 vacant properties in Scotland’s cities while real estate investors, tax haven firms and others are responsible for more than 500 high street vacancies, The Ferret can reveal.
According to figures from the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA), nearly one in five vacant properties in Glasgow are owned by the council, which has almost a third of its owned properties lying empty. This was triple the proportion of that in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, where at least one in 10 council properties were unoccupied.
As part of our Who Owns Urban Scotland series, which investigates the firms behind major parts of Scotland’s towns and cities, The Ferret looked at the owners of vacant properties in Scotland’s four largest cities.
Vacant properties – owned by a range of proprietors – were particularly prevalent on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, where more than a third were vacant, and on Aberdeen’s Union Street, where one in six lay empty.
The Scottish Conservatives said these “alarming figures must act as a wake-up call” to the Scottish Government. They urged the government to “provide pandemic-level assistance” by reinstating business rates relief and freezing the rate used to calculate commercial property values.
The Scottish Government said it had offered the lowest business rates in the UK for over 95 per cent of non-domestic properties, alongside a forecasted £801m rates relief package and other economic recovery and town centre initiatives.
The SAA, which sets business rates, relies heavily on self-reporting of changes in ownership, which means the occupancy status of some properties may have changed.
Some councils and organisations claimed the data was skewed because not all of the vacant properties were available for lease. Residential properties do not feature on the SAA’s database.
Our analysis of the official figures show that councils owned 1,117 vacant business property units, including shops, offices and plots of land. SAA data also showed that of the 3,575 city high street properties listed across Scotland’s eight cities, 535 (15 per cent) were vacant.
In Scotland’s largest city, 30 per cent of the council’s 2,639 properties were vacant. Glasgow City Council and its various arms owned 18 per cent of all vacant city properties. These included 300 plots of land, 165 offices, 127 shops and 65 workshops.
City Property Glasgow is a council subsidiary set up to “manage and dispose” surplus properties. Some 28 per cent of its properties were vacant. Its 356 vacancies – mostly shops, offices and workshops – accounted for eight per cent of all city vacancies.
A spokesperson for City Property Glasgow (Investments) LLP said that the main reasons for vacancies were “the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic coupled with the current economic climate” and a reduced demand for retail.
“CPGI is in the process of considering potential options for the repurposing of longer term void properties in our portfolio,” they added.
Swathes of vacant properties were also held by real estate firms – some of which are based in tax havens like Luxembourg, Jersey, Guernsey, Monaco and the US state of Delaware.
The 117 vacant offices, workshops, storage spaces and other properties owned by Glasgow’s Spectrum Properties made up more than a third of its entire city property portfolio.
In June, the Evening Times reported that Carrick-owned empty Queen Street properties had led to vegetation growing out of the building’s degraded exterior.
Dunaskin said that its vacancies consisted of unoccupied individual units within multi-occupancy buildings and that many had since been let. “Current occupancy/vacant levels simply represent a normal level of turnover of tenants, not vacant properties,” a spokesperson said.
Some 10 per cent of the City of Edinburgh Council‘s 1,572 properties were vacant – accounting for seven per cent of all city vacancies. The council said there were “a number of reasons” for the vacancies.
“One third represent car park spaces, lock ups, burial/recreational grounds or yards, 38 are either designated for redevelopment or are currently under reconstruction, with seven due for demolition,” said a spokesperson.
“The remainder either form part of planned reviews or have some operational requirement.”
Another 11 had been let or leased to businesses with a further 10 either on the market for sale or let, they added.
The Isle of Man-owned firm, Oesselmann, was the capital’s second largest vacant property owner. Its 45 vacant properties were mostly made up of offices in the Summerhall arts centre, which it owns. Nearly one in five of its Edinburgh properties were vacant.
Fordell Estates, a British Virgin Islands-owned company that owns swathes of Charlotte Square, held 39 vacant properties – 29 per cent of its Edinburgh portfolio. These were mostly made up of offices.
In March, The Ferret revealed that a property tycoon who reportedly bought up the square with Fordell was linked to Russia’s security agencies by an MP. The businessman strongly denied the links, but opposition parties called for a Scottish Government probe.
Twelve per cent of Aberdeen City Council’s 735 properties were vacant – representing seven per cent of all city vacancies. A spokesperson for Aberdeen City Council said its ‘vacant’ assets were made up of several categories, including those identified for sale, or already on the market and others where upgrading or redevelopment had been agreed.
Aberdeen Energy and Innovation Park – owned by London’s Moorfield Group – had 34. This made up three per cent of all Aberdeen vacancies. On 22 November, the business parks were put up for sale with a £15m price tag.
The Aberdeen Harbour Board – dubbed the UK’s oldest company – owned 23. In May, the firm was rebranded as the Port of Aberdeen ahead of a reported £400m expansion project. A spokesperson said vacancy rates were fueled by the economic downturn of recent years, but that the board was “pursuing redevelopment options”.
Local transport firm, the Shore Porters’ Society, also owned 23 vacant properties via its benevolent fund. In April, the society’s committee members were accused of syphoning off nearly £600,000 of benevolent fund cash.
In Dundee, 11 per cent of the council’s 755 properties were vacant. Dundee City Council was responsible for one in 10 vacancies. Vacant property ownership was more concentrated in Dundee than other larger Scottish cities.
The firms said 45 Scottish properties were acquired by their group of companies in 2018, including the Faraday Business Centre, which consists of “48 individual business suites, some as small as 85 sq ft.“
“This building is no longer fit for purpose as a business centre and is currently being prepared for sale as a development opportunity,” said a spokesperson. Marketgait – a large mixed-used city centre site – had “12 vacant office suites starting from 160 sq ft” and was 86 per cent occupied, they claimed.
The firms were working alongside Graham + Sibbald – which leases its properties to clients – to fill vacancies despite reduced office space demand due to home and hybrid working models, they added.
A Dundee City Council spokesperson said not all the properties on the list were awaiting lease and claimed its vacancy rates under this measure were five per cent for industrial buildings and eight per cent for shops.
It said SAA data included “properties awaiting clearance and demolition, development sites for future disposal, and small operational properties used by the council. Other properties are currently under offer to occupiers.”
Call for ‘alternative vision’
Martin Avila, chief executive of Community Enterprise in Scotland said community needs must be addressed in order to tackle widespread vacancies. “The assets in our community cannot solely be used for private profit by companies who are far removed from the people who live here,” he said. “It’s socially damaging and corrosive.
“There needs to be a discussion about how we use our towns and city centres. If we are only thinking about shorter-term profit that comes with a cost. That is a social cost.
“But there is also a functional cost because it’s not just that our city centres become deserts… they also are no longer capable [of] providing city council revenue. We need an alternative vision.”
The Scottish Conservative shadow minister for public finance and north-east MSP Douglas Lumsden said: “The high number of vacant units across Scotland is deeply concerning and illustrates the huge challenges businesses have faced since the pandemic.
“In my own city of Aberdeen, we have seen a number of outlets collapse which has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and the crippling business rates imposed on them by the Scottish Government.
He added: “We must encourage people back into our town centres which are currently at risk of becoming retail wastelands without a fair rates regime and positive action from the SNP Government who continue to strip our councils to the bone.”
The Scottish Government highlighted that reoccupied properties with a rateable value up to £95,000 that had been previously vacant for six months or more were eligible for up to 12 months of relief.
“Our retail strategy sets out how we will work with business and trade unions to deliver a strong, prosperous and vibrant retail sector, and contains specific actions to strengthen retail’s contribution to the economic and social success of our local communities,” said a spokesperson.
“This is in addition to the action we are taking to support our town and city centres, and help retailers and communities recover from the pandemic – not least through our £80m Covid Economic Recovery Fund, our £6m City Centre Recovery Fund, and the Town Centre Action Plan.”
All vacant properties owners – or their parent firms – named in this article were approached.
Who Owns Urban Scotland is an investigation by The Ferret looking into the firms controlling Scotland’s towns and cities. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month at theferret.scot.