Landlords have been urged to take responsibility for the blight of empty shops amid a range of measures needed to stop more Westcountry high streets descending into "ghost towns".
New uses should be found for the one-in-seven shops within the South West which are currently unoccupied, a new report suggests.
Landlords have been urged to reduce rent and consider short-term leases to help breathe new life into towns which are struggling as a result of the double-dip recession which has seen consumer spending drop to levels it was at ten years ago.
It is coupled with a massive surge in internet shopping, which is expected to account for an eighth of all sales by the end of the year.
In the Westcountry, some high streets are particularly deserted, with Torquay named as the worst case in Devon and Cornwall, with an empty shops rate of nearly one in five, at 19% – a figure that the resort's management team disputes.
Meanwhile, both St Ives and Exeter perform relatively well, with Exeter featured in a top ten nationally of the lowest number of empty stores, at just over one in ten.
Overall, the South West fared relatively well compared to the national picture, with just under 14% of units standing empty, almost one per cent lower than the UK average.
The worst hit area was the North West, with 20% of empty shops.
The figures come from the Too Many Shops report, compiled by the Local Data Company alongside the British Property Federation.
The empty shops problem is one of several to be addressed in Liskeard and Tiverton, which are among 12 towns nationwide to be selected for the much-publicised Portas Pilot scheme, headed up by retail guru Mary Portas.
Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said that towns faced complex structural problems which would not be solved by "tinkering around the edges".
"In many places, we need to have a complete rethink about how vacant property could be redeveloped into new uses.
"That will require flexibility on the part of local planning authorities, but equally an acceptance from the property industry and its investors and lenders that in many cases previous values simply cannot be maintained and new lower value uses are the only option.
This will be challenging – and there will inevitably be some further business casualties – but the alternative is a period of steady, inexorable and irreversible decline with unacceptable social consequences." Tim Jones, of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, warned against a "panic reaction" of lashing out at out-of-town retail areas, and said it was time to accept that traditional high streets had to evolve.
Mr Jones proposed an increase in leisure and residential use to "create the feel-good factor" and attract more visitors.
And he said: "A major factor that has to be addressed is parking. Councils have got to consider how they are going to attract a higher level of footfall, and encourage people to stay longer too."
Many communities are working hard to reduce the number of empty stores.
Among them is Barnstaple, where town centre manager Craig Bulley said the number of empty stores had risen by 2% over the last 12 months, but at 8%, it is still well below average.
The town is trying to increase visitor numbers through schemes such as a loyalty card and a new advertising campaign, and is working to make shop fronts more attractive by filling them with art. But Mr Bulley said it was not a simple process.
"A lot of empty units aren't owned by local people," he said. "They are owned by pension funds or similar organisations based somewhere else in the country, and they have other priorities. To try to liaise with them, even to put up a school art display, is quite a challenge."
Ian Handford, Devon spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, believes rates are a "huge burden" which are forcing people out of business. Owners are now forced to pay rates on empty properties after a three-month grace period to try to sell or rent it out. "That means you have no income from that property, but you are still expected to find the rates. It's really bad news for business people, and it's no wonder that there are so many cases of personal bankruptcies and insolvency."
Communities fight back to stop the spread of ghost towns
Windfalls of £100,000 from a scheme headed up by TV’s “Queen of shops” Mary Portas will help two Westcountry communities tackle the blight of empty shops.
Tiverton in Mid Devon and Liskeard in South East Cornwall have both been selected as Portas Pilot towns.
It means they will receive a share of £1.2 million to help rejuvenate their town centres, and one of the issues on the agenda is empty shops.
In Tiverton, district and town councillor Sue Griggs is on the Town Team which is helping to shape the plans. One focus is to fill the six of 31 retail units which stand empty on Fore Street – and she has called on larger scale landlords to take more responsibility for the communities they affect.
“When you walk down there at the moment, you get to a certain point and it almost looks deserted. It’s a terrible shame.”
The Town Team is working to engage landlords to try to both reduce rents to make them affordable for smaller-scale businesses, and to fill the units while they are unoccupied. But she said: “Most of those landlords don’t live in Tiverton and they have no local connection here. It doesn’t seem to matter to them whether the shops are filled or not. It’s appalling.”
She said she was “excited” by the plans on the table,
and by the access to information that the Portas Pilot afforded.
But she said: “I think landlords should be made to do more. They have a responsibility to high streets, and to the people living in the area where they have their business.”
The Town Team wants to tidy up shop fronts to stop them declining into a “dreadful” state, and display artwork until they are filled – but they are finding they are restricted by a swathe of regulations, and the question of when business rates have to be paid.
Other plans include a market on Fore Street
Riviera resort chief disputes ‘bleak’ label
A “bleak picture” has been painted for a Westcountry seaside town in which nearly one in five shops stand empty, according to figures.
Torquay in South Devon is number eight in the ten worst performing towns in the South West, with more than 18 per cent of stores gathering dust.
Yesterday, Ian Broadfoot, chief executive of the Torbay Town Centre Management Company, questioned the validity of the report produced by the Local Data Company, which uses a snapshot in time to produce the figures.
“We would dispute those findings,” he said. “Obviously we are in the midst of a major recession, and town centres nationally are experiencing a decline in retail, but that is not just the case in Torquay or the South West.”
He said organisations were working with communities and the private sector to bring shops back into use, with examples including use by theatre groups and displays on local history, as well as work to address the issues.
But Ian Handford, Devon spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, who has recently lost a major tenant from his own Torquay business properties, said the picture in the resort was “bleak”. He said: “The economy here is flat. We are very dependant on tourism and for that you need good weather. Businesses are looking to invest in areas with more vibrant economies.”