High streets in the Westcountry are among the "best performers" in the country after a national survey revealed the number of empty shops in UK town centres hit an all-time high last month.
While town centre vacancy rates jumped to 14.6 per cent in February – that is more than one in seven shops closed – the South West bucked the trend by remaining steady at an average 11 per cent.
Some centres recorded even better results, with both Exeter and Taunton having among the fewest vacant shops in the country.
Derek Phillips, vice-president of Exeter Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the city was buzzing with activity.
He added: "We have got very few vacancies in Princesshay and big names are moving into the city all the time – that's even before the John Lewis effect this autumn.
"We know that many of the vacant shops are under offer and certainly city centre vacancy rates are down to about 6.4 per cent.
"This is really positive news for us."
A report by the Local Data Company (LDC) painted a bleak picture of the economic health of towns across the country and said the figures were the highest since the index started four years ago.
LDC director Matthew Hopkinson said: "The latest increase is not unexpected as post-Christmas occupancy levels drop and retailer failures continue. The best performing centres are mainly in the South and West."
The LDC, which visits more than 2,700 towns, cities, retail parks and shopping centres for its study, expects a further fall in consumer confidence, rising unemployment, the continued growth of supermarkets and the internet to lift the vacancy rate further.
In its bi-annual regional breakdown, LDC said the best performing centres included Exeter, Kingston, Camden, Cambridge, Taunton, Salisbury and St Albans – all with a vacancy rate of below ten per cent.
Later the month, the Government is due to respond to the Portas Review – delivered by celebrity retail expert Mary Portas – which recommends cutting regulations for high street traders and the launch of a national market day.
A gloomier-than-expected picture of the retail sector emerged yesterday and fuelled fears over the strength of the wider recovery in the first quarter of the year.
Retail sales volumes fell by a larger-than-expected 0.8 per cent last month, said the Office for National Statistics, while January's growth was revised down to 0.3 per cent from an earlier estimate of 0.9 per cent.
The City had been expecting a 0.4 per cent decrease in February.
Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: "A number of our high streets are struggling against stiff competition from internet shopping and out-of-town shopping centres, which is why we already have responded rapidly to recommendations on the future of high streets and will publish our full response shortly."