Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Saturday, 28 February 2009

Councils in 'ghost town' warning

A row of empty shop units in Bristol in January 2009
The LGA believes boarded-up shops "drag down" the whole area

England's High Streets are in danger of becoming "ghost towns" unless action is taken to fill empty shops hit by the recession, council leaders have warned.

The Local Government Association (LGA) says four out of five councils have reported an increase in empty premises.

It is calling for new powers to allow town halls to temporarily use shops as sites for community projects.

The government said it was making "swift progress" on measures that would make a "real difference".

Councils fear the derelict buildings could become hotspots for anti-social behaviour and cause further decline.

'Sad reflection'

The LGA wants to make it easier and cheaper to use the premises for libraries, youth clubs, training centres and bring-and-buy sales.

It is asking for new powers to allow councils to take over shops once they have been vacant for three months.

Decisive action must be taken to stop our High Streets turning from clone towns into ghost towns
Cllr Margaret Eaton, LGA chairman

It is also calling for a cut in VAT from 15% to 5% on the refurbishment of empty shops to encourage new businesses.

The LGA says the new powers would be a temporary measure for councils to use only during the recession.

LGA chairman Cllr Margaret Eaton said rows of boarded-up shops were a "sad reflection" of the economic downturn.

"Not only do they signal a local economy in decline, they also become a hotspot for anti-social behaviour and drag down the whole feel of an area," she said.

"Decisive action must be taken to stop our High Streets turning from clone towns into ghost towns.

"The best option is for new or existing businesses to move into empty premises. Where new occupants for a shop can't be found, councils need to take the lead to stop our High Streets sliding into decline."

The town of Dursley in Gloucestershire is trying out the idea, with a parade of closed-down shops transformed into an gallery where artists can display their work.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "Town centres need real help now and we are determined, building on action like the cut in VAT, to make swift progress on measures that could make a real difference. Our communities would expect nothing less.

"That's why we have asked the LGA to report back with tangible and workable solutions next month which we will then consider."

The LGA questionnaire was sent to all 399 leaders of local authorities in England on 26 January.

Of those, 129 responses were received to the question about increases in empty town centre properties.

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