NEW figures which put Blackburn town centre in the top ten worst medium-sized retail areas for empty shops have been fiercely contested by the borough council.

A survey by the Local Data Company said Blackburn centre has more than a quarter of its retail premises vacant, placing it seventh worst in the UK.

Its latest figure of 27.7 per cent of shops empty in June is 1.4 per cent up on a year ago and more than double June 2009’s 11.7 per cent.

This is significantly worse than both the national 14.6 per cent average and the North West average, the highest in the UK, of 20.1 per cent.

Blackburn’s figure in the LDS survey is in sharp contrast to Burnley where town centre retail vacancies fell from 19.2 per cent at the end of 2010 to 17.7 per cent in June this year.

Burnley’s own estimate is 15.5 per cent, Blackburn with Darwen council claims the true figure as of yesterday was 11.2 per cent, 55 vacant properties out of 491 inside the town’s orbital route, excluding the Mall which has an eight per cent vacancy rate, after remaining fairly constant around the seven per cent mark up to January 2012.

Regeneration boss Dave Harling said the LDC figure used an outdated 2004 government definition of the town centre shopping core and includes the old market building with 300 closed retail stalls in its figure for empty outlets, a site now earmarked for supermarket redevelopment.

The report “Too Many Shops” surveyed 145,000 outlets in 506 town centres.

Coun Harling said: “We don't recognise the high vacancy rates quoted by the Local Data Company for Blackburn.

“Although our vacancy rates have increased this year in common with many town centres, independent research has told us that the town centre is performing well against other similar centres in the North West.

“What skews the figures is the much wider boundary areas quoted as town centre as well as the inclusion of vacant sites such as the old markets which is due for demolition.”

Tony Duckworth President, of Blackburn Chamber of Trade, said: “In the run up to Christmas we are worried that the growing number of empty shops will put people off coming to the town centre. The main shopping area has moved from Northgate and Sudell Cross towards Church Street and the Mall. Empty shops in this area need sorting out.”

LDC director Matthew Hopkinson said the definition used for Blackburn’s shopping core was the Department for Communities and Local Government’s official one.