Empty shop numbers 'set to rise in 2012'

One in every seven shops on the UK's High Streets stood empty at the end of last year

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The number of empty shops on UK High Streets is set to rise in 2012, a report has said.

The Local Data Company (LDC) said the increase would come because of weak consumer confidence, rising unemployment and growing online sales.

LDC says that UK vacancy rates stayed stable in 2011 at 14.3%, however there were big regional differences.

Stockport had the highest vacancy rate of large centres with over 30%, while St Albans had the lowest with 8.2%.

"The stable top line rate of 2011 hides the significant breadth in town centre vacancy rates up and down the country and the structural issues that are at stake," said Matthew Hopkinson, director of the Local Data Company.

The report listed some of the High Street stores that went into administration in 2011 including Barratts, Focus DIY, Best Buy, Habitat and Lombok.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) described vacancy rates as "worryingly high" in many parts of the country and called on the government to reduce business rates, which are set to rise by 5.6% in April.

"The scale of retail failures since Christmas and number of shops standing empty show the effects of high costs and weak demand on retail businesses and the people and places that rely on them," said Stephen Robertson, the BRC's director general.

Changing environment

Case study

Landlord Mark Smith bought 10 empty shops in Leigh Park in Havant six months ago. Seven are filled with tenants, the remaining three should be occupied in the next three weeks, he says.

"I realised what existing landlords were doing wrong and offered competitive rents. It is really going well.

"I have purchased the properties at reasonable prices and am able to offer realistic rents, about half the price that existing landlords are offering them at.

"I am very proactive, I am not an absentee landlord. Traders have come in and are trading successfully.

"Landlords need to adapt and shopkeepers need to adapt. If something isn't selling, they need to ask why; What would bring people back to the High Street?

The report said that although the share of shopping taken by out-of-town shopping centres had risen to 31.5% in 2011 from 28.1% in 2000, the main cause for the decline of High Street shops was online shopping.

LDC quote research from retail consultancy Verdict which shows that online sales doubled from 5.1% in 2000 to 10.2% in 2011.

"Technology is driving consumer behaviour to a world of engagement, entertainment and the ability to shop where, how and when we like," said Mr Hopkinson.

"Town centres need to adapt to this changing environment if they are to survive and thrive."

Landlord Mark Smith says he has done just that. He bought 10 empty shops in Leigh Park, in Havant, Hampshire, one of the worst-performing High Streets in the LDC list.

Six months on, seven are let and he has found tenants for the remaining three, thanks to a sharp drop in rents. One of them had remained empty for 23 years.

"I have purchased them at reasonable prices and am able to offer realistic rents, about half the price that existing landlords are offering them at," he told BBC News.

"Traders have come in and are trading successfully."

The British Property Federation, however, recommended turning some empty shops into homes.

"There are a number of proposals on the table for tackling declining town centres - many from the Portas Review - and we believe it is vital to stop talking and get on with implementing them as quickly as possible," said Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation.

"Bringing empty shops back into use by allowing conversion to residential is one that could be implemented quickly and easily."

Portas review

On Saturday, the government announced that it was looking for 12 run-down High Streets in England to compete for a £1m prize as part of plans proposed by retail consultant Mary Portas.

The scheme was described as a "golden ticket" for town centres by local government minister, Grant Shapps.

Ms Portas, the star of TV show Mary Queen of Shops, was appointed to advise the government on town centres in 2011.

As part of her review, Ms Portas recommended that town centres should be managed through new "town teams" who would be responsible for developing businesses in the area.

As part of the contest, areas will bid for support from a dedicated team and Ms Portas herself.

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