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The North-South divide of Britain's dying high streets

The North-South divide of Britain’s dying high streets: How almost 20 PERCENT of stores are lying empty in towns like Wigan as chains including M&S, B&M and Next shut up shop amid dire warnings they may never recover

  • North-South divide with highest rates in North East, Wales and West Midlands

Nearly a fifth of shops in the North East stand empty compared to one in 10 in the South, a new report reveals today. 

Figures published by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) lay bare the scale of the decline of Britain’s high streets in the North compared to the South, with the highest number of vacant stores in the North East (17.5 per cent), Wales (16.5 per cent) and the West Midlands (15.8 per cent).

By contrast, the lowest vacancy rates are in London (11.1 per cent), the South East (11.3 per cent) and the East (12.8 per cent).

The overall vacancy rate in the first three months of this year stands at 13.8 per cent – the same as the previous quarter, the BRC said.

Towns such as Wigan have seen major high street chains including Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, BHS, H&M and Next all shutter outlets in recent years. In the North East, Hartlepool, Newcastle and South Shields have all suffered, while Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham had a 20 per cent vacancy rate in 2019 although this is now  falling.

But shopping areas in the South have also been dealt a hammer-blow by the cost of living crisis – such as Margate in Kent, where some empty stores have been turned into classrooms.

London’s Oxford Street has also been hurt by economic hits such as the coronavirus crisis, with major brands including Topshop, Debenhams and House of Fraser all closing branches. 

Many vacancies in the capital’s West End are now filled with American candy stores on short term leases.

The British Retail Consortium said today that the overall vacancy rate remains at 13.8 per cent

WIGAN: Marketgate shopping centre, when it was open in 2016 (left) and now closed (right)

HARTLEPOOL: The Co-operative Pharmacy outlet seen in 2012 (left) is no longer there (right)

SOUTH SHIELDS: The High Street’s Burton store has closed, seen in 2017 (left) and now (right)

Experts said retailers were being ‘cautious and biding their time’ over opening new stores but also pointed out that the overall vacancy rate in Britain was 0.3 percentage points better than the same period last year.

It comes amid continued concerns over the future of UK high streets which have been crippled by competition from online retailers and out-of-town retail parks.

Issues have intensified amid problems faced by the restaurant industry, with the boss of Wagamama’s owner The Restaurant Group (TRG) claiming that the casual dining industry will never recover to pre-pandemic levels – but also  reassured that chains will not disappear from the High Street altogether. 

READ MORE – Hated tourist tax has left London on life support and Britain lagging behind European rivals, says M&S boss 

The overall vacancy rate for the first quarter of 2023 and the separate High Street vacancy rate were both at 13.8 per cent and both unchanged from previous quarter.

But the BRC said there was better news for shopping centre store vacancies which fell to 17.8 per cent in the first three months of this year, down from 18.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2022.

Retail park vacancies also improved to 8.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2023, which was down by 0.3 percentage points. This remained the retail location with by far the lowest vacancy rate.

It comes after a report in Retail Week revealed last month that London’s Oxford Street now has more empty units than the average British high street – with 42 of its 269 shops standing empty, giving a vacancy rate of 16 per cent.

A total of 17,145 shops on high streets and other locations closed for good last year – the equivalent of 47 a day on average, according to the Centre for Retail Research. 

The total was up nearly 50 per cent on the 11,449 shops that shut in 2021 which during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

LONDON: Oxford Street’s Mango store is pictured in 2020 (left) and boarded up now (right)

MARGATE, KENT: The town’s old Primark store is seen as it was in 2013 (left) and now (right)

This graphic shows how the vacancy rate varies when split by high streets, shopping centres and retail parks – the latter remaining the retail location with by far the lowest vacancy rate

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: ‘The vacancy rate in the first quarter of 2023 saw no improvement as cost pressures made many retailers think twice about investing in new stores.

READ MORE – I’m a thrifty shopper and you won’t believe how many freebies you can get on the high street on your birthday 


‘Despite shopping centres holding the highest proportion of empty units compared to other locations, it saw the largest quarterly occupancy increase thanks to the success of outlets as well as recent efforts to repurpose empty units, especially in the North East.

‘While Northern regions saw the biggest uptick in net openings, they continued to lag behind the rest of the UK with the highest vacancy rates in the country, laying bare the North-South divide.’

She added that ‘stubbornly high inflation and huge cost pressures facing business’ was resulting in retailers continuing to be ‘cautious about future investments’.

Ms Dickinson continued: ‘Any regulatory burdens from Government will only force retailers to make difficult decisions about whether they can open new stores, or if they must close existing ones.

‘By keeping oncoming regulation to a minimum, Government will help to support upholding and growing vibrant communities across the country.’

But there was some positive news today as it was announced HMV will return to 363 Oxford Street later this year following a four-year absence after a lease was signed to confirm the reopening of its flagship store.

STOCKTON-ON-TEES – Empty shops on Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham had a 20 per cent rate in 2019 although this is now falling after the high street was moved to a new area

BANGOR – The town in North Wales had 42 empty shops at the most recent count in January

DUDLEY – The West Midlands town has the worst percentage of empty shops among all UK medium-sized town centres, according to data released by the Local Data Company last year

LONDON – A man walks past a row of empty boarded-up locations along the Strand 

Lucy Stainton, commercial director at the Local Data Company, said the stabilisation of overall vacancy rates was ‘partially indicative’ of retailers having a better than expected Christmas, but coming into this year being ‘still cautious and biding their time to see how various macro-economic factors play out into 2023’.

READ MORE – Primark boss warns shoppers are still struggling as the business posts flat half-year profits 

She added: ‘This slowdown in activity along with the balance between pockets of growth versus sustained cost pressures has meant the first part of 2023 has seen comparatively slower structural change.

‘That being said, whilst there has been a slowdown in the growth of independent businesses, we are seeing a number of chains return to focus on acquisitions and we predict that activity levels should ramp up between now and the end of the year, as the challenges operators face begin to ease up, with operators adapting their portfolios to meet current consumer demands, within this economic climate.’

Ms Stainton also said it was ‘encouraging’ to see vacancy rates falling at shopping centres, which were ‘badly challenged during the Covid pandemic, more so than any other location type’.

She continued: ‘Again this speaks to a cautious return to growth for many chains, as well as more diversity within these schemes, as businesses who have traditionally been more high street focussed such as independents, turn their attention to shopping centre assets.’

It comes after Marks & Spencer boss Stuart Machin expressed his frustration that Oxford Street – where M&S has its flagship store – was becoming a ‘national embarrassment’.

READ MORE –  B&M announces it will close two shops in May 

He pointed to a slew of unseemly American-style candy stores and said footfall was still considerably below pre-pandemic levels in the former ‘jewel of London’s crown’.

He also said the decision to scrap tax-free shopping for foreign visitors has left Britain floundering behind its European rivals, as the Daily Mail’s ‘Scrap the Tourist Tax’ campaign continues.

Also this week, the boss of Primark’s owner warned that consumer confidence is ‘still very low’ as the business posted flat half-year profits.

Associated British Foods chief executive George Weston said that the 24 weeks to March 4 was ‘marked by extreme and volatile inflation’ across the fashion retailer and its food divisions.

And Italian restaurant chain Prezzo said it would shut 46 loss-making restaurants after being hit hard by soaring energy and food costs. The firm has said about 810 workers are at risk of redundancy as part of the overhaul.

Bosses at the private equity-owned businesses said the cuts, which are part of a broader strategic review, will affect sites where ‘the post-Covid recovery has proved harder than we had hoped’.

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