More than a fifth of shops in the West’s most important retailing centre are empty, a shock new report has revealed.
The survey said Bristol is being hit especially hard by the flatlining economy, with Bath, Yeovil and Gloucester also struggling. The worrying figures sparked store wars between the political parties over the best way to get the high street bubbling again.
The Government unveiled an ambitious plan to help revive the ‘ghost towns’ including providing more parking spaces and ending what it called “Labour’s war on the motorist”.
But Labour hit back, saying the real problem was the Government’s failing economic policies, and called for measures including a VAT cut.
The study by Local Data Company found Ashley Down in Bristol had the most empty shops at 24.3 per cent, although the situation had not got worse in the past six months.
That means it has the 14th highest vacancy rate of all the UK’s small centres – those with between 50 and 199 shops.
Gloucester has a vacancy rate of 21.9 per cent, up 11 per cent, with Bristol at 21.3 per cent, up 6.9 per cent.
As our table shows, Yeovil, Trowbridge, Crewkerne, Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare are above the UK average of 14.5 per cent.
Stroud, Bedminster in Bristol, Weymouth, Taunton, Chippenham, Clevedon and Wimborne Minster all have more than one in 10 shops standing empty.
Only Weston, Blandford Forum, Warminster and Marlborough saw a reduction in the vacancy rate, with Cirencester having the West’s best record, at just over six per cent.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said the answer was to increase parking spaces in struggling town centres and announced he will scrap the targets he says have prevented town centres from increasing the parking spaces on offer.
The current “anti-car restrictions” drove motorists to park on pavements and led to “overzealous” enforcement, he claimed, adding: “These parking restrictions have hit small shops the hardest, creating ‘ghost town’ high streets which can’t compete with out-of-town supermarkets.
“We want to see more parking spaces to help small shops prosper in high streets and assist mums struggling with their family shop.”
The Daily Press has reported on the controversy sparked when Wiltshire Council chiefs decided on a massive hike in parking charges in every market town.
They put up the cost to raise more cash to subsidise bus services, but shoppers have stayed away in droves, with the numbers using council car parks plummeting, and total revenue is expected to drop by half a million pounds instead.
Shadow communities minister Jack Dromey said: “Eric Pickles is no friend of the high street.
The truth is that this Tory-led Government has no plan for growth. They have harmed the high street with a hike in VAT which has squeezed family incomes and led to fewer people shopping in our stores.”