Sauchiehall Street is Scotland’s most struggling high street with 36 per cent of its shops, offices and domestic properties now lying vacant, according to analysis by The Ferret.
The once popular shopping street has been beset by challenges in recent years including a fire which broke out above Victoria’s nightclub in March 2018, followed by a second fire at Glasgow School of Art just months later.
But similar problems are facing city high streets across Scotland. The Ferret found once prominent shopping thoroughfares — including Murray Place and King Street in Stirling and Dundee’s Reform Street and Murraygate — had vacancy rates of 18 and 19 per cent, which are above the UK average of 14 per cent.
The collapse of flagship department stores such as Debenhams, Frasers and BHS, compounded by the brutal impact of the pandemic on retail, has been blamed. But many shops have lain empty for years.
The high street vacancy rates were calculated after The Ferret analysed data from Scottish Assessors Association (SAA) business rate data from October 2022.
On Sauchiehall Street, the former BHS store – a large three-storey, art-deco building where pigeons now roost – has been vacant since the chain went into administration in 2016.
In 2021 PGIM Real Estate UK Ground Lease Fund, registered in Jersey which is a tax haven, submitted a planning application for food and retail use. But by May 22, it had reportedly been taken on by Future Investments registered in the British Virgin Isles.
Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Other shops to have gone under include Greaves Sports, which closed in 2017 and Glasgow institution, Watt Brothers, in 2019.
Last week Glasgow City Council announced plans to revitalise the so-called Golden Z zone – which takes in Sauchiehall Street and Buchanan Street. Buchanan Galleries will be redeveloped and it is hoped former retail space will be used as flats, student accommodation and hotels. It has also commissioned research into repurposing city centre buildings.
But some said it would be “extremely challenging” to find adequate investment to fully revitalise the rundown street, particularly as financial institutions had previously had “their fingers burned” by investing in retail.
Edinburgh’s vacancy rates were far lower, according to the figures. But concerns have been raised in recent years about the quality of shops on Princes Street, with even Poundland closing last January.
The Ferret counted 15 retail units on Princes Street that were either vacant, or had been put up to let. Former tenants included EE, Samsung, TopShop and Black Sheep Coffee, with many large units boarded up and covered in graffiti.
The former Jenners store, owned by the Danish fashion retail billionaire Anders Povlsen – the richest person in Scotland – is being refurbished as an upmarket hotel and is not expected to open before 2025.
Vacancy rates in several shopping centres were also high. Dundee’s Wellgate shopping centre had a vacancy rate of 41 per cent. Last week Dundee City Council said it would consider demolishing the shopping centre, owned by Belgate Estates.
Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal, had a vacancy rate of 27 per cent, while St Enoch shopping centre’s was 23 per cent.
Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP for Glasgow, claimed the empty units drastically reduced footfall, and dwindling revenues were increasingly “impossible to ignore”.
“Our high streets and city centres should be the lifeblood of our local economies,” he said.
“Currently, too many high streets are littered with empty units that could easily be utilised, but the rent and rates make it completely unaffordable for local businesses to enter the market.
“With the overseas owners of the properties themselves more interested in the profit margin from land banking their asset than whether the unit is being utilised, there is no incentive for them to rent the units at less than the going rate.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrat economy spokesperson Willie Rennie MSP, added: “Too often property owners seem content to leave shops empty for years on end. They also have not been fully utilising the empty flats above these properties at a time when there is a housing crisis. We need these owners to fully engage so that we can get these properties back to use for everyone’s benefit.”
Glasgow City Council said it had been working on plans to revitalise Sauchiehall Street and the city centre since before the pandemic and had recently launched a raft of measures.
A spokesman said that Glasgow is leading on work with the Scottish Cities Alliance about increasing residential occupancy in city centres. The initiative will look at legislative and regulatory changes and expects to report next April.
It is also considering ‘meanwhile uses’ on a temporary basis for vacant units on Sauchiehall and Argyle Streets.
Other plans for Sauchiehall Street include investment in the so-called “Golden Z” retail quarter of Buchanan Street, Sauchiehall Street and Argyle Street.
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.
All pictures: Angela Catlin