The Co-op’s chief executive Steve Murrells has urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to reform the business rates system ahead of the budget this week.

Murrells has told the newly appointed chancellor ahead of his first budget on Wednesday that business rates are having a “hidden human cost” on the UK’s most economically vulnerable towns.

According to The Times, research conducted by the Co-op and presented to Sunak by Murrells found that towns with the highest number of vacant shops have the lowest ‘community wellbeing’ scores as retailer struggle to keep stores open amid rising costs and flagging footfall.

So far this year 1,211 shops have been shut and 18,000 retail jobs lost, according to the Centre for Retail Research.

Despite this backdrop, separate research by property specialist Altus Group suggested that retailers would have been denied a total £1.2bn of business rates relief because of caps put in place by the transitional relief system, which phases in bill reductions over five years.

Murrells says restorative action for economically vulnerable towns is needed by the government, and that reforming business rates is one approach that could be taken to stimulate the growth of local economies and communities.

“Without a common place to spend time and socialise, people’s collective wellbeing suffers. We’ve got to put an end to this notion that there are ‘worst’ places to live,” Murrells said.

Murrells call for rates reform comes as high street footfall slid 7.8% in February, exacerbated by Storms Ciara and Dennis.

According to footfall tracker Springboard, the most recent figures do not include the impact of coronavirus, with another month of subdued shopper numbers on the cards.