HIGH Wycombe has the highest rate of empty shops in the UK with about a quarter lying vacant, a property firm has said.

Empty units have rocketed from 9.5 per cent in October 2006 to 23.6 per cent two years later, research shows – the highest increase in the UK.

Retailers said the pull of the Eden shopping centre, which opened in March last year, high rents and rates and the recession had increased the number of empty units.

Property consultants Colliers CRE compared 15 towns and cities which represent a “cross-section” of the UK.

It found empty units rose by just 3.5 per cent nationally.

The survey said: “In October 2008, High Wycombe had the highest proportion of void units at 23.6 per cent.”

It said Eden had “had an adverse effect on overall vacancy levels”, a similar problem to hit Liverpool, which has the second highest empty shop rate at 21.7 per cent.

Yet it found the amount of empty floor space had fallen after jumping from 5.9 per cent to 16.8 per cent from October 2006 to April 2008.

This stood at 13.4 per cent last October, the latest figures available, the firm said.

This was likely to be because smaller units are becoming harder to fill, the firm said.

High Wycombe’s retail industry has been hit hard by the dual effects of Eden and the recession.

Empty units have sprung up throughout the town after major retailers including Dorothy Perkins, Vodaphone and the Sony Centre moved into Eden.

Traders in the eastern part of the town said trade had noticeably migrated to the complex, in the west.

In Easton Street three shops in a row are empty – a sore sight replicated in Frogmoor in the town centre.

Les Root, owner of Roots delicatessen in Crendon Street, said: “The reason there are so many empty buildings in Wycombe is Eden. What did you expect was going to happen?

“Eden is not even full. They built it in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are no longer in a prime position.”

Mr Root said his business was doing well given its niche appeal and he was appealing against business rates set by Government, which he said had risen by a third in two years.

Mr Root, who said rents were also “unrealistic”, added: “This could be an ideal time to turn the High Street in to a niche shopping area.”

Abid Khan, who runs Barns dry cleaners and newsagents in nearly Castle Street, said: “It was bound to happen. Most of the trade has now gone towards Eden.”

Takings were a quarter down last year, he said. “You don’t get a lot of flow of people. When they see a quiet area they just move away. It seems ghostly.”

Construction works in the road had also hit trade, he said, and businesses rates are “extortionate”. On-street parking should be return to the road, he added.

Mark Knapton, co-manager of Bucks Trophy Centre in the town centre’s White Hart Street said the closure of nearby banks had reduced passing trade.

Coffee Republic has been among the names to leave the street – although a new South Bucks Hospice charity shop opens there tomorrow.

He said: “This street was heaving three or four years ago. It has died an absolute death.

“No-one is going to move in when there are so many empty ones. We will get a whole row of charity shops.”

On Thursday High Wycombe is a “ghost town” he said with takings down 75 per cent.

Customers often said Wycombe District Council – which provided land for Eden – had “destroyed the town” and “ripped it to pieces”, Mr Knapton said.

Palli Sachdeva, of nearby Juicy Wholesale, which is closer to Eden, said rents and rates were hitting the business rather than the centre.

She said: “If the rents were cheaper people would open up more shops. But is so expensive – people can’t afford it.”

The study also found the average size of vacant units had fallen by 14 per cent “suggesting it is the smaller shops that are most difficult to let”.

London was best placed to weather the storm, it found, as it was “benefiting from an influx of high spending tourists as a result of the falling value of the pound”.

The towns and cities studied were Bournemouth, Cardiff, Chippenham, Dundee, High Wycombe, Ilford, Kensington High Street in London, Lisburn, Liverpool, MetroCentre, Northampton, London Oxford Street, Plymouth, Rotherham and Worcester.