The proportion of empty shops in Britain edged up to 13.7% during the fourth quarter, as the pandemic continued to take its toll on the retail sector.

Vacancies in Q4 rose from 13.2% in Q3, according to the latest BRC-LDC Vacancy Monitor. This was 1.6 percentage points higher than at the same point in 2019, and marked the 10th consecutive quarter of increasing vacancy rates, from Q2 2018.

The number of empty shops grew across all types of retail locations, with shopping centres worst hit. The vacancy rate at malls grew to 17.1%, from 16.3% in the previous quarter.

On the high street, vacancies increased to 13.7% in Q4, in line with the overall rate. This was up from 13.3% in Q3.

Retail park vacancies nudged up to 10% from 9.2% in Q3.

Geographically, the North East was the worst affected, posting an 18.8% vacancy rate. This was closely followed by Wales with 18.7%.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Over the past two years, one in every 50 outlets has permanently closed, and this number will only go up. The big increase in vacancy rates during the crucial golden retail quarter, when demand is usually high, serves as a stark reminder of the pandemic’s impact.

“Social restrictions and their knock-on effect on consumer appetite for fashion, has meant that shopping centres are still faring the worst due to their high proportion of clothing outlets. What’s more, due to economic uncertainty, many retailers have paused their plans for future investment in new stores.”

Dickinson has called for business rates relief to be extended beyond April, as well as additional targeted financial support for the hardest hit retailers and a longer moratorium on aggressive debt enforcement.

“Without these interventions, not only will retail firms go under, but the vibrancy of our town centres and local communities across the country will be lost,” Dickinson said.

Lucy Stainton, head of retail and strategic partnerships at the Local Data Company, said: “With a limited number of new store openings, structural solutions will need to be found to prevent these vacant units lying empty for two, three, four years or more.

“Looking further out, the increase in availability of space will provide opportunities for new businesses. However, we must prepare ourselves for the picture to get worse before it gets better.”