Fears for Yorkshire high street intensify as shops lie empty

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Nearly one in five shops in some of Yorkshire’s market towns are not trading full-time, sparking new fears about the future of the high street.

A Yorkshire Post investigation has shown that more than one in 10 commercial properties owned by the region’s councils are lying empty and generating no income, with large proportions of stores in some of Yorkshire’s heartlands falling into disuse.

Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of supermarkets and out-of-town retail outlets which some traders and commentators say are draining business away from town centres. However, a spokesman for the supermarket industry said the problems facing high streets and town centres were more complex.

Previous investigations into struggles on the high street have focused primarily on cities and large towns.But the Yorkshire Post looked at vacancy rates in six similarly-sized smaller towns around the region to see how many units were trading full time.

In Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, which is at the centre of a row over plans for a large out-of-town supermarket development, the Yorkshire Post found 17 per cent of retail outlets vacant or only open part time.

In nearby Todmorden, where a public inquiry is to be held over Sainsbury’s plan to open a store there, the figure was 15 per cent.

In Malton in North Yorkshire some 13 per cent were not trading. Planners recently approved a new supermarket development despite widespread objection from retailers and celebrity opposition from broadcaster Selina Scott.

Skipton in North Yorkshire, where plans for two separate supermarket developments are set to go before planning bosses, has some 10 per cent of shops not open full time while further into the Dales in Barnoldswick the picture is much better. The town is also the centre of a controversial supermarket plan, but just two per cent of its shops are empty.

In Hornsea on the Yorkshire coast, the figure is six per cent. A supermarket began trading there two months ago, following widespread opposition from traders.

Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the Association of Town Centre Managers, said Yorkshire’s retailers were facing very challenging times. “Supermarkets have definitely had an impact, there is no doubt about it,” he said.

“In the late 1990s around 35 per cent of all sales were in supermarkets. That has now risen to about 40 per cent. That takes some getting your head around.

“Supermarkets call themselves grocers but in reality they are more like department stores.”

Mr Blackwell said proper town centre management and collaborative working between retailers could play a strong role in helping high streets fight back.

Last week the Government published its long-awaited response to the Mary Portas review in which it pledged to launch a high street innovation fund with £10m of taxpayer money focused on bringing empty shops back to life. It also said it would also initiate a National Markets Day.

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said blaming the high street’s problems on big stores was a “misjudgment”.

He said: “We are looking at a weakened economic development which has impacted on consumer demand.

“This has been compounded by increases in business rates and rents in some cases.”