The downturn is still taking its toll on Britain’s high streets, according to data from the British Retail Consortium. There are more empty shops in the UK now than at any time in the last 15 years, with 11.3% of shops in town centres lying vacant.
The worst affected region is Northern Ireland, where the shop vacancy rate on high streets stands a 20%. Second worst is Wales with 15.1%, followed by the North and Yorkshire where 14.6% of shops are now empty.
‘This new high in empty shop numbers really sets alarm bells ringing,’ says Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC. ‘It confirms that financial challenges for both customers and retailers are far from over.’
The BRC survey has also reported a dip in overall footfall: the number of shoppers on Britain’s high streets is down 0.4% on a year ago for the three months to October. This is significantly better than the previous quarter, however, when passing custom dropped by 3.3%
The BRC’s findings add to the general retail malaise. High street brands including Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards and Game have all been driven to the wall during this recession. Latest data from the Office for National Statistics show no end to the pain either: retail sales were down 0.8% in October at a time when shoppers should be gearing up for Christmas.
The BRC has been very busy lobbying government on behalf of its retailer members recently. Only last week, it issued a list of demands (freeze business rates, keep minimum wage low etc) to the George Osborne in the hope that the Chancellor would take its suggestions on board in his autumn statement.
Robertson reiterates the need for a little help from government in this report, saying, ‘Many retailers are battling stagnating sales and rising costs, and next year's threatened business rates increase can only make matters worse. If the government wants to breathe life back into our town centres and ensure the retail industry can play its full role in job creation it needs to freeze rates in 2013.’
Will Osborne listen? We’ll find out on December 5.