THE number of empty shops in the city centre has increased by almost a quarter in the last year, a new report has found.

A report released by Worcester City Council in July found 77 vacant units in the city centre compared to 62 a year earlier – a rise of 24 per cent.

The latest survey figure for September showed a slight drop in the number of empty shops to 72.

Of the city centre’s 77 empty shops, more than half lay empty for at least a year.

The retail monitor report – which sets out what shop space the city has lost and gained in the last year and compares it with council retail targets – showed Worcester has a vacancy rate for shops higher than the national average of between 11 and 13 per cent.

However, Phoebe Dawson, manager of Worcester Business Improvement District (BID), was optimistic about the city's retail trade.

She said: “Worcester BID monitors ground floor vacancies on a quarterly basis and I’m delighted to report that our most recent count suggests businesses are still keen to invest in Worcester’s city centre, one of the many reasons we’ve been shortlisted for the coveted title of Great British High Street of the Year.

“Contrary to national trends, statistics show that our high street is packed with shoppers and we’ve fewer empty premises than this time last year. This buoyanci is attracting even more independent traders to the city and the year ahead should be one of our most successful yet.

“I hope everyone will get behind our efforts to support local business and vote for us to be crowned Great British High Street of the Year.”

The data, taken from April 2017 to March this year, showed seven per cent of shops in the whole of the city have remained empty for more than a year.

Of the 128 empty shops in the city, just over half have been empty for more than a year.

The report sheds some light on retail trends in Worcester – pointing to the rise of nail bars, tattoo shops and tanning salons opening – as well as the rise of smaller chain convenience stores by Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Co-op.

The number of charity shops in the city – 28 in total, 14 of which are spread across the city centre – also gets a mention.

The new retail monitor report – the first to be released since 2004 – is an important document for tracking the progress of developments proposed in the South Worcestershire Development Plan (SWDP) and whether changes in retail space affect future plans.

Worcester City Council said it does not have direct responsibility for filling empty shops but instead looks for initiatives which benefit the wider city centre economy and encourages new businesses to start up and existing businesses to grow.

In the city centre, Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop in High Street, Colourful Pots in Copenhagen Street and Zero Waste off The Shambles all received grants from the city council this year.

A spokesman for the city council said: “Retail units can be vacant for a number of reasons.

“The current level of retail voids is not particularly unusual - in fact it’s been higher in the recent past.

“The September retail monitor, which gives the most recent quarterly count for city centre vacancies, recorded a reduction in the number of vacancies, down from 77 to 72.

“We’ve also been working closely with trustees to increase occupancy of the Hopmarket. Over the last 12 months the number of empty units there has dropped from 13 to four.”