DESPITE being fog-bound, freezing cold, pouring with rain and still harbouring the last of its snow, York city centre was packed on Sunday.

My wife and I were there attending a friend’s birthday celebration and it was such a grim day that we were immediately struck by the sheer numbers of people milling around in and out of shops.

Why is this of interest? Simply because despite being a tourist honeypot and a shopping mecca, York has a substantial number of empty shops.

In fact, in recent years, it has lost some of its most well-established and prestige businesses, such as upmarket homeware retailer Mulberry Hall, which closed after 60 years’ trading, and Burgins Perfumery, which had been renowned for its range of fragrances since William Gladstone was prime minister.

All of which gives some important context to the report that almost one in five shop units in central Bradford was recorded empty at the end of last year.

The report to tomorrow’s regeneration overview and scrutiny committee meeting says the rate had worsened since last June, when 18.4 per cent of shops were empty.

Bradford Council had set a goal of reducing vacancy rates to 18 per cent or below this year and it was now feared that the trend over the previous six months would mean the target would be missed.

The report, however, does concede that just a few years ago, the vacancy rate was more than 22 per cent and there has been a steady reduction in empty shops since The Broadway shopping centre was opened.

Bradford, of course, has a higher vacancy rate than York but, as the saying goes, all things are relative.

If we lived in Burslem, near Stoke-on-Trent, for example – where almost a third of its shops are empty – we might have greater cause for concern.

Nearer to home, Dewsbury has the second worst vacancy rate in the country, at 29.1 per cent, with Newport, South Wales in third place. And there is a long list between Newport and Bradford….

Each area has its own particular problems and its own unique circumstances but most usually cite a weak economy nationally, low wage growth, the surge in online shopping and an increase in out-of-town retail parks among the explanations.

Leeds is often cited as a major cause of Bradford’s woes but you don’t have to walk far in its city centre to find empty retail units.

The point is that the decline in retail in our high streets is something virtually all town and city centres have in common and residents in Bradford, as elsewhere, need to stop using it as a stick to beat ourselves with.

Retail is going through an intense period of re-adjustment as society gets to grips with all that digital technology can offer.

Rather than moan and whinge about the fact there are fewer shops, we should be working out what we want our town and city centres to look like in a world where the internet is unlikely to be un-invented.

It’s not dissimilar to the adjustment newspapers have had to make in recent years: it’s easy to read news online which has led many people to stop buying a newspaper every day.

Millions of people still do, though, and newspapers have had to work out how best to stay viable and how to make the most of the technology to suit both audiences.

Town and city centres, similarly, will continue to get smaller and planners need to be much quicker on their feet to make the right adjustments.

They will need to shrink the size of retail areas, make them smarter, more convenient and complementary to the online package, replace shops with leisure and hospitality offers as well as creating more central living accommodation to keep towns and cities alive and thriving.

In short, we need to stop seeing empty shops as a tragedy and start working out how to make the most of the opportunities they provide, in Bradford just like everywhere else.

...But we must look after the best of what we have left

IN MAKING city centres more compact (see above), quality will become increasingly important, so it’s good to see Bradford Council’s heritage officer taking a stand against those who seek to replace historic shop frontages with “blander” modern versions, as is the case with the former Arensberg’s Jewellers premises on Ivegate.

Bradford has a great deal of surviving Victorian splendour but it can’t afford to lose any more of it, which is why this case needs to draw a line in the sand and planners must insist on the restoration of the original design.

Biggest worry over gun crime rise is in what MIGHT happen

THE INCREASE in the number of firearm incidents in the Bradford district in the last year, as revealed by a Freedom of Information request reported in yesterday’s Telegraph & Argus, is worrying – but perhaps not quite for the same reason as the West Yorkshire Police spokesman has deduced.

Most people will understand that the 36 per cent increase, from 134 in 2016 to 182 firearms discharges last year, had something to do with gang-related violence, probably in connection with drugs.

The police were keen to point out that “a very small number of these discharges resulted in serious injury or worse.”

The concern, though, must be that the more guns there are and the more these sorts of attacks on individuals are seen as routine by some, the more chance there is of someone innocent getting caught in the crossfire.