Retailers have urged the Government to provide them with more assistance to keep shops occupied, as Whitehall unveils a £3m initiative today to try to prevent high streets from becoming ghost towns during the recession.
Hazel Blears, the Community Secretary, will also unveil provisions to help local people or entrepreneurs temporarily convert empty shops into community projects or businesses, such as local art displays, to avoid high streets being boarded up. The provisions include special planning application waivers, standard interim-use leases, and temporarily leasing shops to councils that will allow the shops to get makeovers.
Experian, the information services company, believes that 15 per cent of high street shops, or 135,000 outlets, could be left empty by the end of the year, as retail administrations and financial woes force retailers to close stores.
But the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said the way to prevent high streets becoming ghost towns is to remove burdens and help retailers survive in them. Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: "Art displays are not the answer for empty shops. 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." He singled out property costs as a key burden. Mr Robertson said: "Rather than offering empty shops for uses that are rates-free, wouldn't it be better to reduce the rates burden for struggling retailers?"
The BRC won a victory for its members on 31 March when the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, modified plans to introduce a 5 per cent increase in business rates. As a result, business rates increased by only 2 per cent from 1 April, with the remaining 3 per cent rise being spread over the next two years, under new legislation unveiled by the Government.
However, prior to Mr Darling's U-turn, the BRC had called for the Government to freeze new business rates and reverse its policy on empty property relief, which was scrapped in April last year.
At a seminar in Stockport today, Ms Blears will say: "Empty shops can be eyesores or crime magnets. Our ideas for reviving town centres will give communities the know-how to temporarily transform vacant premises into something innovative for the community...and stop the high street being boarded up."
Entrepreneurs have begun many successful businesses from empty premises, such as Romy Fraser who started Neal's Yard Remedies from a disused warehouse in 1981.