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Calls for a voucher scheme to aid Covid-hit High Street

SCOTLAND’S leading retail association has demanded a firm Scottish Government commitment to an ‘eat out to help out’ style voucher scheme to help struggling shops survive Covid crisis.It comes as new figures show that Scotland suffered a 66.3% drop in …

SCOTLAND'S leading retail association has demanded a firm Scottish Government commitment to an 'eat out to help out' style voucher scheme to help struggling shops survive Covid crisis. It comes as new figures show that Scotland suffered a 66.3% drop in the numbers going to shopping areas in March - when compared to the same month pre-lockdown, in 2019. Shopping centre footfall dropped by 72.1% while in Glasgow there was a 68.2% decline, according to a Scottish monitor conducted by analysts Sensormatic IQ.

The Scottish Retail Consortium said the latest measurement on the effect of lockdown on the high street ignites an argument for the Scottish Government to bring in incentives to stimulate spending - including a voucher scheme to encourage people to shop. Earlier this month, the SNP unveiled a high streets' plan including a GBP10m fund to encourage shopping - but the SRC say that pales in comparison to the GBP145m stimulus planned for Northern Ireland which has a third of the population of Scotland. Similar schemes to pep up the economy have been introduced in Jersey and Malta.

In July, it Jersey residents received GBP100 each to stimulate the island's economy. The GBP11m government scheme was part of a broader GBP150m economic package to assist with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The money was provided in the form of a voucher or pre-paid card given to islanders by September and was to be time-limited to two months.

The vouchers cannot be spent online, used for savings or spent on gambling. In November, Northern Ireland's finance minister unveiled a package of economic measures, including GBP95m for high street voucher scheme due to come this financial year. READ MORE: Two Scots areas are the UK hotspots for slumps in job vacancies during the Covid lockdown

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium said: "A high street voucher scheme could reignite the economy after lockdown and give a shot in the arm to shops, eateries and other high street businesses in the second half of this year as part of a retail sector recovery plan. It could trigger additional spending by shoppers and consumers beyond the value of the voucher transaction, creating an even larger economic multiplier. HeraldScotland:

"On April 2, the SNP unveiled a high streets plan including a GBP10m fund to encourage shopping. It sounds promising, albeit dwarfed by the ambition/scale of the planned GBP145m NI stimulus. We note that Scotland has three times the population of Northern Ireland."

Retail has been hit hard by Covid. Non-food stores saw their revenues slump by a third in December and shop vacancies in Scotland are now at six year high. In the final quarter of 2020 the Scottish vacancy rate increased to 14.4% from 14% in the third quarter - and up by 1.4% on the same point in 2019.

The SRC say that retail sales in 2020 suffered the worst performance in the 22 years that it had carried out monitoring. And it has warned that by the time the current lockdown ends it is likely that most shops will have been forcibly closed for at least six of the first twelve months of the pandemic, with implications for retailers, retail jobs, and for communities. READ MORE: Revealed: Scots shop closures hit record levels as footfall slumps by a third during lockdown

Scottish Labour has said that it proposes giving every adult GBP75 to spend in local shops. Leader Anas Sarwar said its ambitious GBP340 million proposal would be the largest and most radical economic stimulus plan in the history of devolution. Under the plan, 4.5m people aged 16 or over would get a prepaid card which could only be spent in a physical premises - not online - and would be valid for six months.

It would be limited to "non-food retail", as supermarkets have managed relatively well during lockdown. The cards could also not be used to buy tobacco or alcohol, transferred to savings, or spent on household bills or gambling. Any unused money would be donated to foodbanks.

The Scottish Government said it was investigating the potential for a "national platform for local gift cards/voucher schemes", in line with all of the business support schemes that have been introduced to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19. "Such a scheme would be aimed at stimulating local economies and spending on Scottish businesses instead of international online platforms," said a source. An SNP spokesman said: "The SNP is committed to reviving high streets and local business which is why, if-relected, we will invest GBP275m over the life of the parliament to support community-led regeneration and town centre revitalisation, bring forward a GBP10 million 'Scotland Loves Local' fund to encourage people to shop locally and help keep wealth within their community.

"And we have already committed to a 100% non-domestic rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors this year, with an investment of GBP719m - which is unavailable anywhere else in the UK." Liz Cameron, director and chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said support had to go beyond just retail - and cover cafes, tourism operators, travel companies and taxis. "Many businesses have been closed for more than six months, whilst others have had to stop/start their operations based on government guidance," she said. "Financial support will be necessary and essential.

"It is important that any support is specifically targeted to support businesses that are most in need if they are to have a fighting chance of coming through the other side of this pandemic. "A High Street Recovery Programme should be rolled-out which provides re-opening grants direct to businesses to give the sector a jumpstart. This will help businesses to provide incentives to encourage customers to return and spend. "Likewise, we need to get the message out loud and clear that we are open for business, with businesses having spent millions in creating safe places for our customers and employees.

The Government should consider specific campaigns to support this message to give Scotland's communities the confidence and financial backing to re-open, sustaining jobs and welcoming our customers back." More than 1,200 chain stores closed in Scotland in 2020, with just 612 openings, continuing a trend that has developed across high streets in recent years, leading to 14% fewer stores compared to 2016 as shoppers migrate to online shopping. The 1,264 closures - which do not include stores temporarily closed because of lockdown restrictions - is in line with the 1,288 closures in 2019, according to the latest PwC research compiled by the Local Data Company (LDC).

When openings are taken into account the net change in store numbers is -4.1% in Scotland, compared with -4.5% across Great Britain - where there were 17,532 closures compared to 7,655 openings.

The research found that even when discounting the likely final impact of the pandemic, 2020 is the worst performance in recent years, with the net closures higher than in any of the five previous years.