A ‘SIGNIFICANT’ rise in shop units becoming vacant in Barnsley town centre - which leaders blame on the knock-on impact of the Covid-19 pandemic - is set to be reversed thanks to a new plan to encourage businesses to move to the location.

Barnsley Council announced its plan invest £1.1m over the next three years to tackle the number of empty shops, a report revealed, after a vacancy rate of 13 per cent was established.

The funding is set to be used to create a new team - Barnsley Space Agency (BarSA) - whose staff will work with property owners to fill empty premises.

A project manager will be recruited to the agency to identify empty premises, build relationships with property agents, attract businesses to the town and establish an online directory of empty spaces.

Grants will also be offered to pay for fit-outs and shop front improvements.

The first year of funding will focus on research and engagement, and years two and three will, bosses say, concentrate on move-ins.

A report to the council states: “BarSA will encourage proactive lettings of void premises, working with landlords to ensure an appropriate mix of uses.

“It will explore a capital scheme for unlocking barriers to letting and deliver competition-based programmes for new start-ups to open in vacant units.

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“Ultimately, BarSA will develop a ladder of affordable business accommodation offering flexible growth opportunities.

At the pandemic’s height in 2021, 327,000 businesses closed nationally - a nine per cent increase on the year before and the highest number since 2017.

Of these, 950 were closed in Barnsley, but footfall has recovered thanks to the Glass Works’ completion and big-name arrivals - something which the council hope will entice more firms to join the town centre’s ranks.

The statement added: “In a town where average household income is 12 per cent below the Yorkshire average and the higher end profiles were more likely to travel elsewhere, resulting in a £59m trading gap between potential resident spend and actual spend within Barnsley, it was vital we took quick and decisive action.

“We are looking at the bigger picture - making sure we are working towards the right infrastructure, good transport links, strong digital connectivity abilities and an attractive offer, so that we have a thriving and sustainable town centre.”

Matt O’Neill, executive director for growth and sustainability at the council, said work is being done to support both existing and new businesses.

“The pandemic led to a major increase in vacant high street premises right across the country.

“In Barnsley we’ve already seen a significant improvement and we continue to see interest in the last few remaining units in the Glass Works.

“The Barnsley Space Agency, if supported by the board, would look at all vacant premises in the town centre and look at what could be done to help support businesses to bring spaces back into use.

“This will support growth and create new jobs, while also making sure we have a growing and diverse range of businesses in our thriving town centre.”