EMPTY Southend High Street stores should be “chiselled” up and offered to up-and-coming businesses because big High Street brands are “slowly dying off” and becoming more digitised.

Southend councillors are developing a fresh vision for the future of the city to help businesses prosper and thrive and the future of the High Street was identified as a key issue to be tackled.

Councillors heard most of the properties in the High Street are privately-owned and major property companies and pension funds decide on what happens to them.

Dan Nelson, Tory councillor responsible for economic growth and investment said the focus would be on helping such small to medium-sized business, adding he thought splitting up stores for smaller enterprises rather than declining big brands that are “slowly dying”.

He said: “We want to see small businesses be able to thrive in our city. To do that we would need the backing of local landlords, specifically private landlords that own shop frontage.

“For many of those businesses shopfronts down the High Street are simply unaffordable.”

As an example, Southend businessman Arras Ali, recently transformed the former Miss Selfridge store into nine apartments with three shops on the ground floor.

Martin Terry, Independent councillor for Thorpe Ward, urged the council to take action on large empty retails spaces in the High Street but underlined the point about private ownership of many of the High Street buildings.

He said: “These aren’t just local landlords. We’ve got these big pension funds that own some of these shop fronts that sit there unused and we need to get those back into use hopefully with small businesses.”

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Nelson said: “The only thing we can do is to have conversations with landlords and ensure our planning policies are in place to make that an easy thing to do. If we make it hard then landlords won’t do it. The only thing we can do is conversation and encouragement.

“In today’s retail economy, we’ve already seen Body Shop going into administration this week, we’ve seen previously Wilko, these big name high street brands are struggling. They are the only ones that can afford some of the units of that size.

“If you think about it as a landlord you’d be better off receiving three quarters of the income by splitting one big unit into four smaller units and renting out three of them than having one big empty unit. They are still paying council tax for those empty units so they are losing money. If they split them up they get more rental income in a smaller unit which would be more affordable to a more boutique style shop.”

Mr Nelson added: “Most of the units down the High Street are far too large for the market we want to attract in Southend. Having three or four big units is a good thing but there are so many of those big units it’s impossible to fill them all.”