'Shop rents are killing us'
High shop rents are killing of the chances of empty town centre shops being filled, it has been claimed.
Members of the Town Centres Company arranged a meeting with commercial agents last week, with the aim of finding ways to lower rents and fill vacant outlets.
However, the meeting had to be cancelled because only two commercial agents said they would attend.
Arthur Christian, pictured, chairman of the of the chairman of Babbacombe and St Marychurch Chamber of Trade and a member of the Town Centres Company, was disappointed.
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He said: "We thought the commercial agents could help us engage with landlords, but they didn't seem too interested.
"I just don't understand it. Is it that they don't realise the severity of the situation?
"I think what we'll have to do is doorstep companies, meet them face-to-face and get them on board.
"I think the main reason why St Marychurch is doing well is because we're all here in the local economy, for the local economy.
"We're doing our best to make a living and employ a few people, instead of making money for our shareholders, the way national chains do."
Mayor Nick Bye said Torquay town centre prices could be 10 times the amount charged for somewhere like St Marychurch.
"The high rents are the reason why there are so many empty shops in the town centre," he said.
"I had a look in the window of a local commercial estate agents and it was fascinating.
"An empty shop in St Marychurch will rent for around £6,000 or £7,000 per annum. But in Union Street the rents are around £63,000 per annum.
"The town centre is busier than St Marychurch, but not 10 times busier."
Torquay town centre manager Lucy Ball claimed that landlords, who often have little connection with the Bay, set the premium rate rents when the economy was booming.
She said that the recession hasn't lowered the rents.
Ms Ball said: "If, for example, someone took out a 25-year lease seven or eight years ago and has gone out of business, the rent is still being paid on the lease but the premises is empty.
"As long as there is someone who is prepared to pay money for an empty building, the rent won't be lowered to encourage someone to occupy the shop.
"It doesn't pay the landlord to get someone in paying a lower rate."
But Mr Bye said landlords would have to fill up empty premises eventually.
"The situation will work itself out in the end because people want to come into the town centre," he added.
Paul Bettesworth, head of the real estate and industrial department at Bettesworths in Torquay, said: "A lot of landlords will still be receiving rent, but this is not the case everywhere.
"A lot of the prime shops were held on long-term leases. The rent review clauses only allow for rents to be increased. It is not the fault of the landlords. It is the way the system works."
Torbay Chamber of Trade chairman Christian Seiflow-Moran described the current situation as 'disgusting'.
"The rental value of one prime retail site in Torquay town centre was twice what I expected it to be.
"Often big corporations hold the leases, and it is more cost-effective for them to keep the premises empty.
"But landlords should be looking to fill the places up. It is disgusting. This is not just Torbay — it is across the country.
"The Government needs to look at its policy, and support tenants and landlords to fill up empty premises. This is a massive problem."
Last week the Local Government Authority said that England's high streets are in danger of becoming 'ghost towns' unless action is taken to fill empty shops.
The LGA is calling for new powers to allow town halls to temporarily use shops as sites for community projects.
The authority wants new powers to allow councils to take over shops once they have been vacant for three months, and a cut in the rate of VAT to five per cent on the refurbishment of empty shops.
Ms Ball thinks there is a need for a change in legislation to prevent shops lying empty, but she said the benefits depend on what empty units are used for.
She said: "Something is better than nothing, but we have to be careful that what goes into the units is beneficial."
Mr Seiflow-Moran added: "I don't see what local councils can do to fill up the properties because they are owned by private landlords.
"There will have to be a change in Government legislation to make this work."
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