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ALMOST a fifth of Basildon town centre shops are empty, according new figures.

The Local Data Company claims the town centre had a vacancy rate of 17.2 per cent at the end of 2013, with big name traders pulling out.

McDonald’s left the town centre last year and Basildon Council also launched a failed attempt to buy a parade of town centre shops in East Walk as businesses moved.

Fears have been raised that businesses are being drawn to the outer edges of the town because rates are cheaper.

Hassan Hassan, manager of Ocean Blue fish shop, in East Walk, said: “More and more shops are seeing it is worth their while to move out of town because it is too expensive here.

“The rates cost an arm and a leg and we’re seeing more and more shops closing because they can’t pay their way.

“The town centre isn’t brilliant and is paying for it.

“It’s very difficult to survive at the moment and we’re just about doing it. People are choosing not to come into the town centre.”

Basildon Council’s figures for business premises in the entire borough, which includes offices, warehouses and shops, as a whole show 67 more businesses have come to the town in the last year. There are 478 empty premises currently compared to 545 at the same time last year.

Hans Wustefeld, chairman of Basildon Town Centre Management, said times were “tough”

but Basildon was on the up.

He said: “It’s still a very tough market out there, and some of the units are the wrong size, but we are seeing Basildon become more buoyant.”

Mr Wustefeld says BTCM keeps a record of empty stores in the outer edges of the town and there are fewer vacancies – only 14 per cent – at the retail parks.

The Local Data Company claims the average vacancy rate across Britain is 13.4 per cent.

It calculates the rate by measuring how much floor space is sitting empty in any one town.

Basildon Council tried to buy the row of East Walk shops last Autumn.

It was willing to pay £6.5million, but the deal fell through.

Discount fashion chain TK Maxx spurned the opportunity to come into Basildon town centre, opting for a unit at Pipps Hills Retail Park.

But Metro Bank has got planning permission to open on the former Barclays site in the town, and hoardings have gone up around the building.

A spokesman said: “We’ll be opening later this year.”