The number of vacant shops increased 13% in the six months to June 30, with regional differences becoming “more apparent than ever”, creating a “clear North- South divide”.

In the previous six month period, vacancy levels increased 12%.

According to the Local Data Company’s latest Shop Vacancy report, ‘A gathering storm?’,large centres in the north and the Midlands are suffering the highest vacancy rates, with 28.9% of Blackpool’s shops empty. Bradford stands at 24.6% and Wolverhampton at 23.8%.

In medium centres Altrincham tops the rankings, with 30% of its shops vacant. Margate and Dewsbury follow with 27.6% and 27.4% respectively.

The report found that big centres in London and the South East are “holding up well”, and that the overall increase in vacancy rates is slowing down. Centres showing improvement in vacancy levels were Bath, Guildford, Central London and Cardiff, as well as Liverpool, in the North West.

However, the report added that “for those economies anchored by the public sector, this could be only a temporary respite”.

With public sector cuts on the horizon, “for some big northern and peripheral centres, this could be the perfect storm”, found the report. “Given the importance of public sector employment in these areas, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are going to struggle to fill their High Streets for some time.”

HMV Group property director Mark Bowles said: “The continuing trend of increasing vacancy rates is a cause for considerable concern, and will have a significant effect on the vitality of town centres across the UK.”

Chief executive of the British Property Federation Liz Peace said: “It is encouraging to see High Streets recovering in the South, but that glimmer of positive news does not hide the fact that retail markets elsewhere are struggling, and that consumer confidence is still fragile.

“Filling empty shops will never be easy or quick. Both banks and landlords need to show a proactive approach to managing property, while local authorities have a key role to play in promoting flexibility and innovation in areas suffering from a high number of vacancies.

“Of course, the problem is exacerbated by the continued imposition of empty property rates, which has forced landlords to pay money in tax they could have used to make their property more attractive to tenants.”