How well shopped are Wales’ towns and cities?

A new report published last week by The Local Data Company (LDC) and Cardiff University, on Wales’s top 71 cities and towns, revealed significant and new data on the health of Wales’ high streets. The report’s key findings were be presented by Dr Scott Orford of The Wales Institute of Economic and Social Research Data and Methods (WISERD), Cardiff University and myself.

We took the last three years work on Scottish towns and cities with the University of Stirling and applied it to Wales. The research set out to answer three questions:

  1. What is the retail scale of Welsh towns and cities?
  2. What is the vacancy rate and how is it changing over the last 3 years?
  3. What is the retail structure of our towns and cities?

In retail terms, Wales has many similarities with most of the UK, London aside . Wales is slightly more multiple (chain retailer) oriented than GB as a whole (38% v 35% of shops). LDC figures show that Welsh towns have seen the biggest increase in the number of independent retailers in the last three years from 52% to 57%. There is, however, a difference in vacancy rates with Wales reporting 14.2% vacancy in 2015 against 13.0 % for GB.

 Key findings (2014 v 2015)

  • Wales headline vacancy rate is currently 14.2%, down from 15.3% in 2014.
  • The Welsh headline vacancy rate in town centres was 15.0% in 2015, -0.4% lower than in 2014 (15.4%).
  • Milford Haven has the highest vacancy rate of all Welsh towns at 35.8%, down from 40.4% in 2014.
  • Gorseinon has the lowest vacancy rate at 2.9%.
  • Town vacancy rates have fallen from 14.9% to 13.6%, while cities saw a +0.6% increase in the last 12 months (2014 vs. 2015).
  • Gorseinon (-13.2%) saw the biggest decline in their vacancy rates during the 2014/15 period
  • Since 2012, Maesteg (-16.2%) and Pontypool (-12.9%) have seen the biggest improvement in their vacancy rates.
  • Llanidloes has seen the biggest growth in its vacancy rate over the last three years, with its vacancy rate rising by +12.4%
  • Persistent vacancy measures the number of units vacant for over three years. 6.3% of the total units in Wales have been vacant for more than three years, compared to 6.8% in Scotland and 3.4% in England.
  • Welsh towns performed better than Welsh cities, with only 6.2% of the total units vacant for over three years in towns compared to 9.6% in cities.
  • Milford Haven has the highest proportion of its total units vacant for over three years (28.3%).
  • Ebbw Vale, Oystermouth and Cowbridge are the largest of the nine towns that have no persistent vacant units.
  • Barry West has the highest proportion of independent shops at 84%. Swansea has the highest proportion of independent shops out of the Welsh cities (41.2%).
  • Cwmbran has the lowest proportion of independent shops at 25.9%.


Leisure (Food, Drink & Entertainment) has an increasingly significant presence in cities and towns, with Cardiff (+2.4%) having the biggest increase across Welsh cities in leisure stock in the last 3 years.

Interestingly, the towns with the lowest vacancy rates actually saw a decline in the percentage of leisure units compared to retail units. Pontypool (-5.3%), Ebbw Vale (-5.0%) and Gorseinon (-3%) had the biggest decline in the percentage of leisure in their towns.

Newport is the city with the highest proportion of charity shops at 3.5%. Llandrindod Wells is the town with the greatest proportion of charity shops at 6.2%.

Using our Booze Money and Gambling Index (BMG), Newport has the highest index score for the cities at 2.2, over two times smaller than the highest in Scotland (Aberdeen– 4.6). Ebbw Vale has the highest index score for a town at 7.5.

25% of towns saw an increase in the BMG proportion since 2012, compared to over one third who saw a decrease in their BMG score.

Dr. Scott Orford, Reader in Spatial Analysis and GIS, Cardiff University commented:

“The Welsh vacancy rate has seen a decline in the past year for the first time since 2012, although this decline has been focused in towns rather than in cities. The mix of businesses is altering both in terms of independent and multiples and retail and leisure outlets. This reflects both local regeneration strategies and longer-term changes to the local economy and restructuring in towns and cities. There are board regional differences in the trajectories of town and city centres, with centres in South Wales having much lower vacancy rates and a larger share of independent retailers than in other parts of Wales. Differing trajectories reflect a centre’s past retail legacy, but also its current assets and opportunities and the strategy and vision of their local management. We can identify these differing trajectories through the direction and strength of change in vacancy rates, number of premises, persistent vacancy, independent retailer proportions, charity shop penetration and the mix of types of retail businesses.

Wales’s towns are a key component of national identity, attractiveness and prosperity – they help create vibrant and viable places. Understanding them more deeply is vital. The data here are one step in this process and show the variety of adjustments to new futures for our towns that are underway”

Wales has consistently showed above average shop vacancy rates compared to England and Scotland. The local economy is a key driver of the health of town centres and this is challenging in parts of Wales where wage levels are low and unemployment rates high. Most recently this is evident with the job losses within the steel industry, a significant employer in South Wales. Whilst regeneration is taking place in parts, and vacancy rates have improved by 1%, there is a significant variance between the best performers where vacancy rates are at one in ten shops lying empty to others where one in three shops lie empty.

Wales faces a challenging time as in many locations there are just too many shops and with the likelihood of reduced consumer spend, brought on by rising unemployment and easier access to the prime centres, then we can expect to see a decrease in retailer demand to occupy the many empty shops in more challenged locations.”

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