Northern towns ‘struggling to fill thousands of empty shop units’

Matthew Hopkinson, director at the Local Data Company.
Matthew Hopkinson, director at the Local Data Company.

Almost one in five shops in England’s northern towns and cities are empty, compared with just one in 10 in the south, a report said today.

The regional divide has been highlighted by The Local Data Company (LDC) as it revealed that the rate of shop vacancies across the country stood at 13.3 per cent at the end of last year, down from a February 2012 peak of 14.6 per cent.

The worst regional area is the North East, with a shop vacancy rate of 18.8 per cent in the second half of 2014, a fall of 0.3 per cent on a year ago.

The best region is London, with a vacancy rate of 8.7 per cent.

The North East, North West and West Midlands all have shop vacancy rates double that of London, with Yorkshire and Humber not far behind.

The report found that 20 per cent of all shops it tracked had been vacant for more than three years, which amounts to almost 10,000 outlets.

Local Data Company director Matthew Hopkinson said: “This is the equivalent of five Manchesters lying empty.”

The North West has led the country in terms of shop vacancies since 2008 but has now been edged out by the North East.

The top 10 worst town centres for vacant retail and leisure space contain five in the West Midlands, four in the North West and one in the North East. None are in Yorkshire.

The top three are Burslem in Staffordshire with a vacancy rate of 29.4 per cent, Stoke-on-Trent with a vacancy of 27.7 per cent and Hartlepool, with a vacancy rate of 27.3 per cent.

The top 10 best town centres have six in Greater London and the South East.

The top three are Debden in Essex which boasts a zero per cent vacancy rate, as does Highgate in London, while Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire has a 0.9 per cent rate.

Mr Hopkinson said: “At a regional level the polarisation between the North and the South is as wide as ever with London’s vacancy rate being less than half that of the northern regions.”

Last month Tesco said it will close 43 stores and scrap the opening of 49 new outlets, while Morrisons said it will shut 10 as a response to losses incurred during the ongoing supermarket price war.

Mr Hopkinson added: “While the numbers announced to date are small beer to the totals, the significance lies with the fact that whilst traditional shops have been closing it has been the supermarkets and convenience stores that have been expanding significantly which has kept the occupancy rates balanced.

“The question as to who will occupy these newly vacant stores as well as those which have been empty for a while is a very difficult one to answer positively.”

Towns and cities in Yorkshire which have struggled to fill empty shop units are said to be improving.

Dewsbury Councillor Paul Kane said the town centre had benefited from the transfer of council workers from Huddersfield. He has noticed an increase in cafes/sandwich shops but also a rise in ‘pound shops’.

Colin Philpott, of lobbying group Bradford Breakthrough, said: “We still have more empty shop premises than we would like in Bradford but the situation is improving. Plenty of previously empty shops are being brought back into use as shops or as restaurants or bars. The North Parade area of Bradford city centre in particular is enjoying a revival as an independent quarter.”