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he proportion of shops in Britain lying empty has hit a new record of 14.6% in February, according to figures compiled by the Local Data Company.

Vacancy rates had begun to stabilise at the end of 2011, but they have risen in January and February, the LDC said.

It is further evidence of a difficult start to the year for retailers.

Consumer confidence also slipped back in February, the latest survey from Nationwide indicated, largely due to concerns about employment prospects. Continue reading the main story �Start Quote

   It is a timely reminder to the government... of the significant challenges facing town and city centres up and down the country�

End Quote Matthew Hopkinson Local Data Company

   * High Street casualties
   * Cautious consumers 'pay off debt'
   * Job woes hit consumer confidence
   * Sharp decline in UK retail sales

There was an increase in the number of respondents describing their economic situation as bad.

"Consumers also scaled back their expectations for the future, with the forward-looking aspects of the index weakening during the month," said Nationwide chief economist Robert Gardner.

New figures from the Bank of England, also released on Friday, back this up.

Cautious consumers are choosing to pay off credit cards and loans, rather than take on new borrowing, the data indicate.

Evans Cycles, one of the UK's biggest bike retailers, told the BBC's Today programme that it was having to be very conscious about prices.

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