This economic problem brings with it serious social problems. Thriving local high streets are closely linked to civic pride and vacant store fronts are a visible sign of a community in decline.
Nationally, 14% of high street shops are vacant – twice the average seen before the 2008 financial crisis. But in some towns, vacancy is much higher. In Rotherham, for example, three in ten units are vacant and two thirds of these vacant units have been empty for more than 3 years.
And high street vacancy rates are rising fastest in poorer regions. Between 2020 and 2021, vacancy rates rose fastest in the West Midlands (8.8%), North East (7.2%) and East Midlands (7.8%). This compares to a just 1.9% rise in London and falls in high street vacancy rates in Wales and Scotland.
In Barnstaple, the number of shops lying vacant for more than three years rose by 63% between 2015 and 2022, while Stoke-upon-Trent (54%), Kettering (52%) and Rotherham (51%) have seen rises of more than half. In Slough, the number of persistently vacant units has nearly quadrupled, from 1.7% to 6.1% of all units.
The Government has set out the beginnings of a plan to address this challenge. It wants to force landlords of long-term vacant units to lease them via a compulsory rental auction. The associated regulations are set to be introduced in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
This is because high street vacancy is closely link to who owns the building. Vacancy rates for shops owned by investment management schemes and financial companies are nearly nearly ten times higher as those for shops owned by private individuals. The former also accounts for 46% of all empty shops.
The paper sets out how the use of compulsory rent auctions would work by forcing landlords to bring empty high street shops into use:
You can read about Onward’s wider research on repairing the social fabric of communities here.
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