2015 was an encouraging year for town centres, retail parks and shopping centres with stronger consumer confidence and early signs of restructuring and regeneration driving a recovery - but the country still has too many shops, according to a new report.
Figures from the Local Data Company covering 2,179 towns, shopping centres and retail parks show that in the second half of the year, the retail and leisure vacancy rate fell from 11.7 per cent to 11.5 per cent.
The number of vacant premises in the top 650 town centres stood at 24,751, down by 399 compared with the first six months of 2015. Across all locations, the number of empty premises fell by 1,994 to 47,597. This was largely driven by 800 shops being reoccupied.
However, the number of properties that had been vacant for more than three years rose by one per cent.
London had the lowest regional vacancy rate at 7.6 per cent, while the North East had the highest at 16.7 per cent. The North East also had the highest percentage of long-term voids - 7.3 per cent.
Shopping centres had the highest vacancy rate for type of development, standing at 14.1 per cent. Town centres were next (11.5 per cent) followed by retail parks (6.2 per cent) - but rates had declined across all three categories compared with H1 2015.
Burslem in the West Midlands had the highest individual vacancy rate, with more than one in three premises (33.1 per cent) standing empty. Zero vacancies were recorded in Barking Road West and Highgate in Greater London, as well as Eastgate in Lincoln.
Matthew Hopkinson, director at the Local Data Company, said: "The health of our high streets should always be a reflection of the economy that they exist within. This is both at a micro and macro level with employment rates and weekly average earnings being significant at the micro level, and interest rates and inflation being examples of macro influencers.
"The wide improvements in vacancy rates across the country are a result of more shops being filled rather than a reduction in the overall stock. In part this is due to the significant expansion in leisure (food and beverage, and entertainment) outlets that continues at a pace but has raised concerns of a bubble.
"Other reasons have been significant regeneration and developments reaching completion. In addition to these schemes, hundreds of town centres have received significant government funding for the regeneration of their high streets since 2012, when a number of reports were published on the subject, including the Portas Review and Grimsey Review. Investment activity in 'secondary/community' shopping centres has been strong, with the new owners investing in the improvement of the public realm around these locations. This has made them more attractive sites for retailers and shoppers.
"While high streets and shopping centres have seen solid improvements in their occupancy rates, it is the retail parks that really stand out as the destination of choice for many retailers, with Next being the most expansive occupier for many years on out-of-town parks. Retail parks are bigger and more diverse than ever before, with retail and leisure offerings, free parking and better logistical structures for retailers in the world of Total Retail - in-store, online, mobile and click and collect.
"As I have stressed in the past, there are wide differences by location and asset class up and down the country, so for a number of towns and shopping centres times are still very challenging - towns such as Dewsbury, Hartlepool, Walsall, Bootle, Bolton, Burslem and Wigan all have one in four of their shops lying empty. Many of these centres you will note are north of the Watford Gap and this persistence of vacancy comes out clearly when we look at the key location health indicator of how long shops lie empty.
"So 2016 has the potential to be another year of improvement if employment and wages continue to rise, and interest rates and inflation remain low. The fact, however, remains that Britain has too many shops, and we continue to build more, and many areas are blighted by this fact as seen by the thousands of shops that have no prospect of ever being reoccupied. Opportunity knocks for those who know where, what and how this is best done at the micro level."