UK Retail Vacancies at Highest Since July 2011

Empty shops on Kilburn High Road, London
Oli Scarff | Getty Images News I Getty Images
Empty shops on Kilburn High Road, London

The latest retail report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warns that the rise in empty shops in towns across the U.K. is a "major concern."

The footfall and vacancies monitor, carried out by the BRC trade association and retail analysts Springboard, showed that shop vacancies in U.K. town centers had risen to 11.9 percent in April 2013, up from 10.9 percent in January 2013.

The vacancy rate is now at the highest since the survey began in July 2011, putting the U.K.retail sector under renewed pressure as consumer confidence and spending wanes.

"It's a major concern that the vacancy rate has reached a record high, driven by increases in almost every part of the U.K., with some regions like the South West seeing a significant leap in empty shop numbers," BRC's Director General Helen Dickinson said in a statement.

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"With high streets topping the agenda for many now, there's a real opportunity here to seize the moment and stem the tide of further closures. Comparatively small steps to tackle deep-rooted issues such a sparking, accessibility and rising business costs could make a huge difference to the health of town centers," Dickinson added.

Official government figures released six months ago showed one in 10 shops in the U.K. was standing empty. More recent data from retail location data compilers, the Local Data Company put the figure at 14.1 percent in March. The government appointed a high profile television retail expert, Mary Portas, to help revive the Great British "high street"- the main shopping thoroughfare in British towns.

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More optimistically, footfall figures for U.K. retail showed a one percent improvement in April from a year ago, BRC data showed, while footfall for "high streets" rose 3.4 percent rise from a year ago, the strongest performance since December 2011.

"At least there's some cheer on offer in the footfall figures, driven by a respectable showing for high streets, but this compares against a very rainy April 2012, when bad weather left a lot of shoppers running for cover,"Dickinson said.

"There are some very tentative signs of conditions improving, but the trading environment remains volatile. Retailers will be hoping that warmer weather and a Bank Holiday boost help May to usher in better news," she added.

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Springboard's retail insights director, Diane Wehrle, said that the disparity between footfall in shopping malls and town centers was partly due to to the fact that "many of the high-profile retail failures –reflected in the increased vacancy rate - have been located in malls, creating holes in their retail frontages which have adversely affected their attractiveness to shoppers."

-By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt