Shop vacancy rates have stabilised at 14.3% during the second half of last year, although the latest figures show a sharp north-south divide.

A report by the Local Data Company showed that while the UK average was stabilising, 2012 vacany rates are set to rise and 2011 retail vacancies in the Midlands and the North are nearly double the UK average.

Among the worst performers was Stockport, with a vacancy rate of more than 30%, while rates in Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Grimsby and Blackpool were over 25%.

According to the data, the best performing town centres in 2011 were predominantly in the south and west and included Exeter, Kingston, Camden and Cambridge. Exceptions were York and Harrogate which boast relatively low vacancy rates below 10%.

St Albans topped the list of best performers at 8.2%.

The survey, which looked at 700 town centres, casts a bleak shadow for the year ahead after identifying a trend in consumer spend moving away from the high street. It foreasted a rise in vacancy rates for 2012.

The Local Data Company report cited weak consumer confidence, rising unemployment, continued growth in online sales and a significant number of retail leases ending as contributing factors to the forecast that shop vacancy rates would rise again in the year ahead.

The news comes as the Government launched on Saturday its first initiative on the back of the Portas Review of the UK’s high streets, with a £1m competition for towns to become ‘Portas pilots’.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has called for urgent action to revive Britain’s high streets.

BRC director general, Stephen Robertson, said: “Long-term plans for reviving our high streets are good but real damage is being done now and needs to be addressed now.  

“The scale of retail failures since Christmas and number of shops standing empty show the effects of high costs and weak demand on retail businesses and the people and places that rely on them.

“Recommendations on town centre management, investment and access which have come from the BRC and the Portas review can help but they are not enough.

“The Government should…reduce the eye-watering 5.6% business rates increase it plans to impose in April.”