LANDLORDS who leave shop units empty rather than drop the rent should face higher business rates, a councillor has demanded.

The call came from Bournemouth Central councillor David Smith, who demanded a level playing field for high street retailers facing ever-growing online competition.

He joined the discussion at a breakfast event organised by the Daily Echo and sponsored by Bournemouth Town Centre Business Improvement District.

Traders have raised concerns that landlords too often keep properties vacant because the value of property portfolios is based on “achievable rents”, even if they are standing empty.

Cllr Smith said: “There has to be pressure put on the landlords who refuse to let shops. There’s one particular landlord I know who has had shops sitting empty in the town centre for years and refuses to let them because people won’t pay the rents he wants, which is not sustainable.”

He said there should be a “punitive tax system”, with rising rates for landlords who keep premises empty.

He also said the government needed to reduce business rates for shops, whose online competitors do not have the same costs. “If we want to sell things to people, there has to be a level playing field,” he added.

Cllr Smith said the council was in a difficult position when it came to car park charges. “I know the pressure we’re under financially to make the budget balance and we’ve got essential services we all know about,” he said.

“Sometimes we’ve got no choice but to put up car parking charges to balance the books but we don’t have a level playing field when we have to charge people £2, £3 or £4 to park. At Castlepoint it’s free, as we wall all know,” he added.

He also called for the police to take more action on aggressive begging.

The meeting also heard from the founder of the trainers and skateboards retailer Consortium. Nat Rendell said of his experience trading in Albert Road: “We had issues with homeless people and cleanliness. It was a terrible place to trade.”

But he said there was support for small traders. “David Smith was very supportive and I think all those elements are really important so that people realise there’s a way forward. As a smaller independent trader you can feel really alienated,” he added.

He said the town needed a “hub” offering a range of businesses. “The hub shouldn’t just be the Square and gardens,” he added.

Alistair Doxat-Purser, chief executive of Faithworks Wessex, said 23 local agencies were working to tackle homelessness.

The Echo's fortnight of retail analysis was praised by Cllr Philip Broadhead, Bournemouth council’s cabinet member for economic regeneration.

He said the coverage was “very good”, adding: “They’ve been very balanced.”

He told the Echo's breakfast event: “I like the fact that they’ve focused on the different areas hearing from agents, BID, council, retailers and hopefully it gives people a bit more of a feel of how complex the picture is."

He said retail needed to adapt to the changing world. “If you look back 20 years and try and recapture what 20 years ago was, you’ll never have any future,” he said.

He said the council was overhauling its town centre vision, adding: “We all need to be cheerleaders for Bournemouth.”