Empty shops 'spin is letting down town centres'

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The Independent Online

An MP has attacked a town centre management organisation for being more concerned with PR spin than filling vacant shops and tackling the high street malaise.

Rochdale's Simon Danczuk has accused the Association of Town Centre Management, a non-profit organisation, of trying to "massage" empty shop figures at a time when nearly one in seven stores are vacant.

According to an email seen by The Independent, ATCM contacted its 800 town teams on Monday "strongly recommending" they release more favourable research data on vacancy rates to local media before what it described as a "controversial" report from the Local Data Company the next day.

The revelation follows the camera specialist Jessops, the entertainment chain HMV, the DVD rental firm Blockbuster and fashion retailer Republic collapsing into administration this year.

Mr Danczuk alleged that ATCM is trying to "orchestrate a propaganda campaign to deny the scale of the problem on the high street", claiming that town centre bosses often spent more time denying there was a problem than trying to fill empty shops.

LDC found that 14.2 per cent of Britain's town centre shops were empty but the ATCM's press release used the 10.9 per cent vacancy figure for the UK provided by this month's British Retail Consortium and Springboard survey.

Mr Danczuk accused ATCM of "dancing to the Government's tune and rather than getting to grips with problems they want to play them down". He added: "Perhaps they would like to tell the 15,000 people whose retail jobs have been affected since Christmas that things are not as bad as they seem."

But Martin Blackwell, ATCM's chief executive, hit back yesterday by saying it is "non-political and we don't dance to anyone's tune". He explained it sent the email this week as there was a substantial discrepancy between LDC's figures and those of the BRC and Springboard survey for a small number of towns, such as Dudley, and it had concerns the data could "stifle investment" in these areas. For instance, LDC calculated that 32.4 per cent of shops are vacant in Dudley, compared with 18 per cent estimated by the other two firms.

Mr Blackwell said: "The problems for the high street are desperate. There are deep-seated issues to be tackled and we are committed to tackling them."

The Government is poised to award a two-year grant for high street support services worth £1.3m before the end of this month, with ATCM one of the parties bidding.