16% of UK shops lie empty according to Freedom of Information

According to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), 15.9% of all shops and retail outlets in the UK now lie empty.

The figures obtained by Duff & Phelps, the global advisor that protects, restores and maximises value for clients, quantify the scale of the challenge facing the UK high street after one of the toughest trading periods since the 2008 recession.

Philip Duffy, Managing Director, Restructuring Advisory at Duff & Phelps, stated: “Getting an accurate picture of the real health of the high street is difficult, but by using FOI, we managed to gain valuable insight into what local authorities are experiencing. With a total of 418 councils in the UK, our mean average indicates that the total number of retail units that now lie empty stands at 50,578, or an average of 121 empty retail units per council.”

There were 319,000 retail businesses in 2018 according to the ONS.[1] Given this figure, it is believed that the void rate now stands at 15.9% of the total.[2]

Duff & Phelps’ figures are in line with those released by the retail analyst firm Springboard, which found that vacancy rates are now running at around 10%.[3] But its figures differ in that local authorities under FOI have released them, so arguably they should be more reflective of the reality on the ground, as an empty retail unit does not necessarily mean it’s vacant and available for lease. However, figures do point to a more alarming trend with retail footfall continually declining, with it recently announced that the retail sector continues to experience poor footfall.[4]

Retail is one of the most important markets in the UK, with its economic output in 2017 equating to £92.8bn, employing some 2.8 million people and comprising of some 319,000 businesses.[5] But 2018 turned into the “year of crisis” for the retail sector. In the first 100 days of 2018, some 18 mid- and large-sized retailers collapsed, impacting more jobs than in the entire year prior—this has appeared to be the trend in the first half of 2019.

It is estimated that business rates are the equivalent of 2.3% of overall business costs for a traditional brick and mortar retailer, compared to just 0.6% for pure-play online retailers.[6]

Duffy continued, “The impact on local government cannot be underestimated either. FOI also identified that 91% of UK local authorities are retail landlords in their own right. Empty units mean lost rental and business rates income, all at a time when many local authorities are reporting increased financial pressures.

“The old financial model of the traditional brick and mortar retailer—based on a high street or shopping centre built around them in the post war era—was centred on regular increases in sales and 25-year leases with upward rent reviews only. As a result, it has meant high rents and occupancy costs. This has blown apart as a result of both the discounters and the dramatic uptick in online sales. The remaining question is whether this picture continues throughout 2019 and if so, at what speed?” concludes Duffy.


Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides public access to information held by public authorities. It does this in two ways: public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.

UK Local Government

There are a total of 418 local authorities in the UK, comprising:

England (353 total)

  • 27 County Councils (upper tier)
  • 201 District Councils (lower tier)
  • 32 London Boroughs (unitary)
  • 36 Metropolitan Boroughs (unitary)
  • 55 Unitary authorities (unitary)
  • 2 Sui Generis authorities – City of London Corporation and Isles of Scilly (unitary)

Wales (22 total)

  • 22 Unitary authorities (unitary)

Scotland (32 total)

  • 32 Unitary authorities (unitary)

Northern Ireland (11 total)

  • 11 Unitary authorities (unitary)

For this research, a total of 70 local authorities were requested to release figures under Freedom of Information on the number of retail voids in their area. A total of 47 responded within the proscribed legal framework, representing an 11% sample of the total number of local authority bodies in the UK.

Average void rate per council stands at 121 per authority. Assuming an equal pattern across the UK the nation void rate stands at 50,578.  

According to the ONS there were 319,000 retail businesses in 2018.

National void rate therefore stands at 15.9%

Retail administrations in the UK 2008-2018

(Source: Centre for Retail Research)

Year Company failures Store numbers Employee numbers
2008 54 5793 74539
2009 37 6536 26688
2010 26 944 10930
2011 31 2469 24025
2012 54 3951 48142
2013 49 2500 25140
2014 43 1314 12335
2015 25 728 6845
2016 30 1504 26110
2017 44 1383 12225
2018 38 2892 43292

[1] http://www.retailresearch.org/retailatbay2018.php
[2] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06186
[3] https://www.retailsector.co.uk/44263-high-street-vacancies-on-the-rise-retail-data-shows/
[4] https://brc.org.uk/retail-insight-analytics/other-kpis/footfall-and-vacancies-monitor/reports
[5] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06186
[6] https://www.retailresearch.org/businessrates.php

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