MORE than 200 shops and offices across Colchester are lying empty, depriving the council of hundreds of thousands of pounds in income, a report has revealed.

Government data has shown in the past year, 225 landlords have said they need empty premises relief.

This means Colchester Council is expected to lose out on £1,366,090 in income in the year leading up to March.

When an office, shop or factory is used by a business, the owner pays a tax - called business rates - set by the Government.

But if a business unit is not being used, the landlord of the property does not have to pay rates for three months.

Analysis of the data shows empty business units in Colchester have cost the taxpayer £9,646,364 in lost rates over the past five years.

In 2018-19, landlords in Colchester were exempt from paying £1,305,725 of rates under the scheme.

It amounted to 1.69per cent of the £59,227,274 business rates collected.

This was below the average for England.

Richard Watts, of the Local Government Association, said business rates are “an extremely important source of income” for councils.

But British Retail Consortium property adviser Dominic Curran said the tax “disproportionately harms retailers”.

Colchester Council has to share the business rates it collects.

In total, 50per cent goes to central government, 9per cent to Essex County Council and 1per cent to the Essex Fire and Rescue Service.

A spokesman for the council said: “A significant amount of work in recent years has gone into improving our processes and strengthening debt recovery, while ensuring we can offer support to those in financial difficulties.

“Our team works extremely hard to verify the occupation status of a property, to limit abuse of empty property relief and, if required, will seek the assistance of specialist legal firms to support any enforcement action if required.

“This enables us to continue to achieve strong overall collection rates for business rates.”

Sam Good, Our Colchester’s Business Improvement District (BID) manager, said it had started work to look at ways to use empty units, including filling them with artwork.

He added: “As it stands, the town centre has a vacancy rate of around 9per cent, which is steady and on par with regional average and far below national average.

“As the town centres across the country face crippling numbers of store closures, the town centre is bucking this trend with an increase on opening over the last six months.”