Retail experts call for more action on empty shops

Retail property advisors in the North West have echoed industry calls for the Government to do more to reduce vacant shop levels in malls and high streets.

Communities secretary Hazel Blears yesterday unveiled measures to speed up planning, allow local authorities to intervene to offer short-term leases and subsidise community groups to find creative ways to fill shop space.

The British Council of Shopping Centres criticised the ideas saying they did not go far enough. Edward Cooke, executive director of BCSC, said: "While the measures announced will go some way to help address the problem in the short term, they will do little in the long term to prevent further retailers from going bust."

Pamela Jones, partner and head of the retail practice group at law firm Hill Dickinson, added: "We have to fight to keep as many shops open as we can. It has a knock-on effect when there is an empty shop, the shop next door is more likely to fail as shoppers dry up."

Hill Dickinson advised on the takeover of 51 Woolworths stores by Deeside-based frozen food retailer Iceland at the start of this year and believes more vacant units will be snapped up from administrators by stronger retailers in the near future.

She added: "Property values are coming down and food retailers are performing well which inevitably means there will be more deals to follow."

Jones also cited the rise of Internet retailing as a reason for the demise of the High Street and feared that without innovative solutions more vacancies would follow.

"The shopping experience of going out into a city centre is a far greater one than shopping on the Internet but that will be lost if we do not give people the places to visit," Jones said.

The British Retail Consortium also criticised Blears' proposals, BRC director general Stephen Robertson saying "art displays are not the answer for empty shops".

Robertson added: "We agree that vacant premises blight town centres. But contriving schemes to fill them with other users is tackling the symptom while ignoring the cause.

"Confidence in a community comes from a vibrant, economically successful, town centre. Clearly there's a need for information centres and playgroups but local economies need shops to be filled with thriving retailers supporting real jobs."

Nick McAllester, associate director of in-town retail at Colliers CRE in Manchester, is surprised there have not been more retailers failing in the recession to date.

He said: "I thought there would be more administrations announced in the first quarter of 2009 to give administrators a chance to sell the companies as going concerns before the quarter day at the end of March, but it didn't happen.

"There has been heavy discounting over the past six months to keep turnover up but at the same time costs remain and the two factors can't continue forever."

Both the BRC and BCSC have urged landlords to trim property costs and the Government to delay the 5% business rates increase that was due this month, which it partly did.

The BRC's Robertson added: "The full amount still has to be paid over the next two years and rates revaluation threatens another big increase next April.

"Rather than offering empty shops for uses that are rates-free, wouldn't it be better to reduce the rates burden for struggling retailers."

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