SCOTLAND’S retail sector is at “crunch point” – and it could take years to fill empty shops, an expert claims.

Professor Leigh Sparks, chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and retail studies expert at Stirling University, spoke out as the latest publication by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed continued “pressure” on the country’s shopping sector.

Demand for high street, shopping centre and retail park units is expected to fall as the downturn continues.

In recent months major chains like Toys R Us and Maplin have folded, while department store group House of Fraser, fashion firm New Look and discounter Poundworld have also revealed branch closure programmes.

According to RICS, empty stores are “becoming increasingly visible” and, across the UK, “prime retail rents are now anticipated to either fall or remain ?at across the board over the next 12 months”, with the outlook “worse still for secondary locations”.

The issue has a major impact on communities, with councils losing rates and surviving traders often seeing business fall as fewer people enter what was once prime shopping territory.

Sparks told The National the country has become “over-stocked” with shop space, but that many units are in the wrong places as consumers increasingly look to outlets close to work, travel and home, with the growth of online custom exacerbating the problem.

And he warns there is no speedy solution to the issue, saying: “This has been building for a number of decades and we are now at a crunch point.

“People want a very quick solution. The solutions are not going to be quick, they are going to be over a long period of time.”

He went on: “A lot of this is about chain retailing. They used to say that you needed 350 stores to cover the UK. Now that’s down to 50.

“I would argue that means there are more opportunities for those who are not chain retailers.

“The headlines talk about the destruction of retailing through the major chains but there is a lot of interesting stuff coming through.”

Sparks says examples include a possible move to community ownership of the high street in Dumfries, and the opening up of space to the public in the Borders.

He also highlighted efforts to reinvigorate former thread town Paisley after its town centre took a major hit in the 1990s.

Today around one quarter of retail space is unoccupied, but work is under way to attract people back for family and cultural events, including the current Jurassic Bricks Lego dinosaur trail.

The town’s recent City of Culture bid hinged on its industrial and musical achievements, as well as on regeneration.

Sparks said: “Paisley had a bad reputation in retail and business for quite a long period of time. There’s now a clear idea of what they are going to do. They are now building up its heritage and trying to make things work. You can see that is starting to happen and it can happen elsewhere.”

On the overall Scottish market, chartered surveyor David Castles, of Ian Philp Glasgow, commented: “Secondary retail has seen a significant downturn with the reduction in consumer spending, increased base costs and the continual growth of internet shopping.

“This sector will be required to reinvent itself to generate future growth.”