THE number of empty shops in Chester has risen slightly in the past three years, new figures have revealed.
Figures released by Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) show that in January, 2012 the figure was 12.15 per cent and by January 2014 that had risen to 12.95 per cent.
But the council and traders say that the 12.95 per cent figure is artificially high because of outlets being deliberately left empty in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre and the Forum Shopping Centre, to allow landlords to make changes to some of the shops.
Chester MP Stephen Mosley, said this is good news to where the city was in 2007.
He said: “Retail is a big part of the Chester economy and it is why we have been seeing unemployment in Chester dropping recently.
“Shops are opening and closing a lot in Chester and there will always be a turnover. What we have to look at is how quickly they are being occupied. In 2009 there were six out of 10 shops empty on Bridge Street and we forget what it was like. It is a lot more vibrant now.
“People tend to look at an isolated area like The Forum. The landlords there want to refurbish so they are only offering short term leases while the long term leases run out which is why there are so many empty shops there.
“If you look at CWaC figures in 2007 there were 45 shops empty, in 2010 it was 16 and now they only have two available.
“I’m not saying there isn’t a problem at all but if you are constantly doing the city down then it doesn’t help.
“The most important thing is to get the economy going. We are now seeing economic growth with more people having more money in their pockets which they spend on the high street.”
However, regional figures show that the number of empty shops in Chester is still well below the rest of the North West which has an average vacancy rate of 17.3 per cent – the worst region in the UK.
Alex Sharp, chairman of the Watergate Street Traders Association, the unofficial independant quarter of the city, said the CH1 Chester BID (business improvement district), which is designed to bring investment into the city from private businesses, will help improve confidence into the city.
He said: “We have actually had a positive result this quarter with a 0.4 per cent reduction on last quarter which means more units have been taken.
“Also the figures are being slightly skewed due to the Grosvenor Shopping Centre and the Forum, both of which are going through changes at the moment.
“I am confident the CH1 Chester BID will continue to drive confidence that Chester is the right choice to locate, relocate or expand and we will actively support any business looking to do any of those in Chester.”
Mr Sharp added that although things seemed to be improving, there are a number of things which the council could do which would improve things.
He added: “Comparatively small steps to tackle deep-rooted issues such as parking, accessibility and rising business costs could make a huge difference to the health of our city centre
“When you compare the low overheads of e-commerce with the long rents and crippling rates on the high street, it’s easy to see why vacancies have gone up.
“But the appetite to go out to the shops with friends is still there, so in many ways retailers retreating to the relative safety of online are missing a trick.
“Retailers and landlords need to work together to find a modern solution to our shopping needs. One that accepts the need for convenience combined with demand for a physical retail destination.”
But independent retailer Russell Townson, who ran the recently defunct Chester Whiskey Shop, said they had been forced to shut in December because people were not prepared to pay for luxury products.
He said: “We were forced to shut because of overheads and a drop in footfall. People are very wary about where they spend their money. We are a luxury product so I understand that. I can only go so far within my margins but I do know that as it stands I haven’t made a profit.
“There was a bakers on this street which shut two years ago after about 100 years in trading, and a butchers too. It is such a shame that the council’s focus is totally wrong. They focus too much on getting tourists here to see the heritage.
“Doing that is understandable but people come to Chester for a unique shopping experience which is what the independents provide.
“The council needs to realise that the attraction of Chester is not only the heritage but the independent businesses, not the big retail shops. You don’t go somewhere to go to the same shops you have at home.”
Council spokesman Shirley Wingfield said the council had a number of projects in the pipeline to increase footfall. She said: “As we are all aware there are important plans in place in Chester to increase the footfall to the city.
“For example the theatre, the business quarter and the Northgate scheme which are all included in the one city plan.
“Chester businesses are also proposing a business improvement district which aims to reinvigorate the city centre. We are all working hard to build for Chester’s future.”
See full story in the Chester Leader