Vacant high street shop levels rise

The number of vacant shops blighting the UK’s high streets and shopping centres has continued to rise, a report has revealed, amid grim warnings that some will never fully recover.

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Ministers have been urged to make it easier for vacant shops to be used for alternative purposes after a report by the Local Data Company showed the average vacancy rate rose to 14.6% at the end of June, up from 14.3% six months ago.

But the situation in some centres is much worse, with Margate suffering the highest vacancy rate of 36.5%, while Nottingham was the worst performing big centre, with more than 30% of its sites empty.

And the report found the north-south divide is widening, with vacancy rates of 18.5% in Wales, the Midlands and the North and 16.7% in Scotland, compared with 12.7% across London and the south.

The depressing findings come despite the Government’s high-profile measures to help shops, as high streets continue to be hit by the increasing popularity of shopping online and out-of-town retail parks.

Retail expert Mary Portas has been working with 12 towns – including Margate – to boost trade and breathe life back into beleaguered high streets, but the report calls for more to be done to ensure shops are concentrated in vibrant cores.

British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace said: “Our towns face complex structural problems which are not going to be solved by tinkering around the edges. In many places, we need to have a complete rethink about how vacant property could be redeveloped into new uses. This will be challenging – and there will inevitably be some further business casualties – but the alternative is a period of steady, inexorable and irreversible decline with unacceptable social consequences.”

The report, called Too Many Shops, said the fundamental problems were caused by the economy as consumer spending fell back to 2002 levels and by retailers expanding into too many sites before the financial crisis. But it warns that changing shopping habits mean many high streets will not return to their past glory once the economy recovers.

The data, compiled by looking at 145,000 shops in 506 town centres, showed the worst-performing region overall was the North West, with average vacancy rates of 20.1%. The sharpest decline was suffered by the West Midlands, with 18.9% of shops closed, compared with 17.7% six months ago. All regions have seen an increase over the past year apart from London, which has fallen to 10.1%. The best high street was at Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, where there are no empty shops.

Local Data Company director Matthew Hopkinson said: “At worst, it is about managing decline to enable alternative uses for a centre to take over and, at best, it is maintaining positive trends in the face of increasingly fierce competition and costs.”

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