LONDON (Reuters) - The number of shuttered shops in Britain edged lower for the first time in four years in the final quarter of 2021, providing a glimmer of hope for the country's beleaguered shopping destinations, according to data published on Friday.
A joint report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Local Data Company (LDC) said Britain's shop vacancy rate was 14.4% in the fourth quarter of 2021, 0.1 percentage points below the third quarter level.
The rate was, however, 0.7 percentage points higher than the same point in 2020.
With the bricks and mortar retail sector hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, one in seven shops remain vacant.
The BRC-LDC vacancy monitor found high street vacancies fell slightly to 14.4% quarter-on-quarter, shopping centre vacancies dropped 0.3 percentage points to 19.1% and retail park vacancies remained at 11.3%.
The report noted the lowest vacancy rates were seen in the south of England, where higher disposable income and greater business investment meant vacant storefronts were more quickly repurposed.
Scotland and the north of England continued to see much higher vacancy rates, with almost one in five shops closed in the northeast of England.
"This is the first real indication that the most significant structural impacts of the pandemic are potentially at their peak for certain regions," said LDC director Lucy Stainton.
She highlighted that growth in the number of independent businesses was partially offsetting ongoing closures across many retail chains and leisure operators.
Helen Dickinson, CEO of the BRC, said that with hybrid working unlikely to disappear any time soon, it will be difficult for vacancy rates to fully recover.
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Frances Kerry)