We have examined the ongoing problems on England’s high streets many times here on the blog, looking at how both local retailers and local authorities are looking at new ways to address some of the challenges faced by 21st century multi-channel retail in the global economic recession – and new figures released last week suggest that the problem of empty retail stores in our high streets is further compounded by the geographical location of the businesses, suggesting a stark North-South divide. Almost one in five shops in the North of England are empty – compared with one in ten in the South. The study by The Local Data Company (LDC) revealed that despite the apparent doom and gloom, retail occupancy is rising and that across the whole of England, the rate of shop vacancies had gone down – with 13.3% standing empty, compared to 14.6% three years ago – which was the highest percentage of shop vacancy recorded in recent years.
According to the study, the worst regional area at present – with the most empty shops – is the North East of England where 18.8% of the shops were recorded as empty in the second half of 2014 – down 0.3% on the previous year. Unsurprisingly, LDC report that London has the lowest vacancy rate with just 8.7% of shops standing empty – which is down 0.4% on the previous year.
In addition to the percentage of empty stores, the study also found that of all the shops it had recorded as empty, 20% of them had been vacant for more than 3 years – amounting to around 10,000 stores, throughout England.
Until recently, the North West of England held the lowest levels of store occupancy – since 2008 – but the North East has now beaten them. LDC used the data to compile a top ten of the worst town centres, in terms of vacant retail and leisure space. Of these towns, 5 are in the West Midlands, 4 in the North West and 1 in the North East. The top three ghost towns are Burslem in Staffordshire with a store vacancy rate of 29.4%, Stoke-on-Trent with a store vacancy rate of 27.7% and Hartlepool, which has a store vacancy rate of 27.3%.
Despite these depressing figures – revealing towns where almost a third of the stores are empty – there are some promising signs that the economy is improving as the figures from London and the North East overall show that occupancy rates have improved slightly from last year. It is up to retailers to come up with innovative uses for the empty spaces with pop up stores and other initiatives (as we have previously reported on this blog) or for local authorities to look at new ways to stimulate trade and encourage growth.