By Daniel Hunter

Footfall in the three months November to January was 1.8% up on a year ago, better than the 2.3% fall in the previous three months.

Footfall improved in all types of locations, particularly out-of-town with a 3.1% increase, compared with high streets up 1.4% and shopping centres up 0.8%. Averaging over the last 12 months shows high streets have fared worst, with a 4.8% decline.

The hardest-hit locations in the past three months were Scotland (-8.5%) and the South West (-7.5%). Scotland was also one of the worst in the previous three months. Wales (11.4%), Northern Ireland (7.2%) and the South East (7.1%) held up the best.

The national town centre vacancy rate in the UK was 11.1% in January 2012 (high streets and shopping centres), unchanged from October 2011. Northern Ireland (14.1%), the North and Yorkshire (12.9%) and East Midlands (12.4%) recorded the highest vacancy rates.

"The lift in shopper numbers for the quarter is almost entirely down to a strong Christmas," Stephen Robertson, British Retail Consortium Director General, said.

"And December looks deceptively good because it's being compared with the heavy snowfall which affected the end of 2010 and kept many people at home then.

"At the start of 2012 footfall numbers dipped again, showing underlying caution hasn't changed. Worries about personal finances and job security are putting people off shopping. Although inflation has started to ease, costs are still rising faster than wages. Any significant change in consumer sentiment is going to take time.

"The rate of town centre vacancies has stayed constant across the UK as a whole but the condition of too many high streets is still bleak. The 5.6 per cent rise in business rates due in April would be another major blow. The Chancellor has the opportunity to recognise how much town centres matter to local jobs, economies and communities by sharply reducing the scale of that rise."

Diane Wehrle, Research Director at Springboard, said that footfall had defied many analysts predictions.

"Despite recent concerns over the health of high streets, footfall defied analyst expectations over the last quarter with an uplift of nearly 2 per cent," she said.

"This is positive news considering some key players have recently gone into administration and there's been a wave of profit loss announcements. For the first time in five years December saw footfall up on the previous year as savvy shoppers took advantage of heavy retailer discounting.

"Out-of-town shopping continues to show positive growth with a 3.1 per cent uplift as consumers seek to avoid car parking charges and take a more ‘functional' approach, becoming increasingly targeted about what they're buying.

"It's also worth noting footfall on the UK's high streets was stronger over the quarter than in purpose built shopping centres, with a particularly robust performance in the lead up to Christmas. This is testament to the success of town centres in attracting trade during cold weather when customers often gravitate towards a covered shopping environment."

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