The number of empty shops hit an all-time high last month amid a post-Christmas series of retail failures, according to a survey published today.
Town centre vacancy rates rose to an average of 14.6% in February, from 14.5% in January, the Local Data Company (LDC) said, the highest figures since the index started four years ago. This equates to one in nearly seven shops being shut in the UK.
The LDC previously said some high streets are still thriving, particularly in the south of England, but many in cities and towns such as Stockport, Nottingham and Wolverhampton are struggling.
Matthew Hopkinson, director at the LDC, said: "The latest increase is not unexpected as post Christmas occupancy levels drop and retailer failures continue."
The LDC said this trend has continued with the announcement that Game Group intends to appoint an administrator putting some 600 UK shops at risk.
The LDC, which visits more than 2,700 towns, cities, retail parks and shopping centres for its study, expects a further fall in consumer confidence, rising unemployment, the continued growth of supermarkets and the internet to lift the vacancy rate further.
In its bi-annual regional breakdown, LDC said the best performing centres were mainly in the south and west. These included Exeter, Kingston, Camden, Cambridge, Taunton, Salisbury and St Albans, which was the best performer with an 8.2% vacancy rate.
The Government is later this month due to respond to the Portas Review, delivered by celebrity retail expert Mary Portas, which recommends cutting regulations for high street traders and the launch of a national market day.
A gloomier-than-expected picture of the retail sector emerged yesterday and fuelled fears over the strength of the wider recovery in the first quarter of the year.
Retail sales volumes fell by a larger-than-expected 0.8% last month, the Office for National Statistics said, while January's growth was revised down to 0.3% from an earlier estimate of 0.9%.
The City had been expecting a 0.4% decline in February.
Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: "A number of our high streets are struggling against stiff competition from internet shopping and out-of-town shopping centres, which is why we already have responded rapidly to recommendations in Mary Portas' review on the future of high streets and will publish our full response shortly."