£10m high street scheme criticised
A £10 million Government fund aimed at bringing empty shops on English high streets back into use has been criticised after it emerged one of the areas allocated £100,000 had just two vacant stores in its main town centre.
The High Street Innovation Fund, set up in response to Mary Portas's review of ailing town centres, allocated money to 100 councils.
An analysis of the areas each allocated £100,000 found more than one third had under the national average rate of vacant shops. In Three Rivers District Council, the main town centre in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, has just two empty shops, according to analysis by retail specialists the Local Data Company.
The review, which covered 85 of the 100 areas awarded funding, found that just 63% of their core towns had a shop vacancy rate higher than the current national average of 14.6%.
In Nottingham, with 428 empty shops, the £100,000 grant is worth £233.64 per vacant store, but in Rickmansworth the figure is £50,000.
Local Data Company director Matthew Hopkinson said: "Whilst this funding from the Government is clearly an encouraging sign, it does leave hundreds of town centres up and down the country with little or no hope of how they can invest in turning around or indeed just managing the further decline on their high streets."
Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who sits on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, criticised the way the pot of money was allocated. He said the Government did not collect data on high street vacancies and instead used vacancy rates including offices and other business premises in an area.
Rochdale MP Mr Danczuk said: "My constituency of Rochdale has 45 empty shops in the town centre and we didn't get a penny. Yet a neighbouring Tory area to housing minister Grant Shapps' constituency with just two empty shops gets £100,000. It beggars belief."
In its response to the Portas Review, the Government said the £10 million was for areas "blighted by empty shops and recovering from the riots to help bring entrepreneurs back to their communities".
A Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "Business rates data is by far the most accurate at reflecting the number of empty business premises, and is provided by councils themselves - to use any other data would be to short-change councils whose high streets face the greatest challenges and who were worst affected by last year's riots."