And Ministers were last night urged to think “radically” about new ideas or see towns across the UK go the same way as “soulless” parts of America.
Professor Leigh Sparks of Stirling University told the Daily Telegraph that the Government was wrong to think of the problem as “retailing alone” and that they should be looking to save town centres as a whole – not just the high street.
He claims town centres started to “fall apart” 40 to 50 years ago because local authorities started to decentralise everything.
He said: “The big issues is the way schools have been moved away from centres of towns to greenfield sites, local authorities have moved offices away from centres, cinemas, football grounds.
“At Stirling the ground used to be adjacent to the town centre, now it’s four miles away on the ring road.
“Lots of the reasons that people used to go to town centeres have been moved away and they don’t see a reason for going there.”
He added: “There is a tension between elected members and the officers. Elected members often say ‘ there are no votes in town centres’ so why are they going to be interested if they have no real responsibility for them.
Professor Sparks sits on the advisory board of the Scottish Government’s review of town centres and has been invited onto the High Street forum put together in England by Mark Prisk MP and Boots director Alex Gourlay.
He said the shoppers had to shoulder part of the blame because they had stopped spending money with traditional high street shops – and switched to either the internet or out-of-town malls.
But he said the seismic shift was hardly suprising given how little there was to attract the public to the centre of towns.
He told the Telegraph: “We need local authorities to prioritise how they spend money and put more into town centres, from planning to the state of buildings. It’s going to cost a lot of money to fix but we have to find a way of getting people to invest.
“It matters hugely. Towns are our economic and social hearts. And look at the soullessness and placelessness of alternative. Looks at parts of the USA and the problems they face. It really matters.”
Up to 14 per cent of shops across Britain are empty or boarded up after a recession that has triggered the collapse of a host of well known brands – from MFI to HMV. Retail chiefs are furious with the Government for putting business rates up again in April – adding another £175 million to their costs.
Last month, Sainsbury’s chief Justin King and Ian Cheshire, head of B&Q owner Kingfisher, met with Treasury secretary to urge the Government to rebalance the tax burden between shops and internet stores which largely escape the rates and rent bill.
Professor Sparks said the business rates regime needed a radical “rethink”.