The UK high street has continued to suffer from a long-term decline in March, aggravated by an early Easter and colder spring weather. Overall footfall across retail outlets dropped by 2.7%, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC)/Springboard Footfall and Vacancies Monitor, as Easter fell in March rather than April, cutting the number of trading days.

Cold weather furthered the detriment of retail footfall, with the five weeks to 2 April seeing a 3.9% decrease.

“The near 4% decline in footfall on our high streets and in shopping centres is partially caused by the distortion of the timing of Easter,” said BRC Chief Executive Helen Dickinson. “It is, however, also a continuation of a longer-term trend caused by ongoing structural change within the retail industry.”

The chancellor, George Osborne, said in his March budget that 600,000 small firms will not have to pay business rates, while 250,000 will pay lower rates from April next year.

Osborne announced he was permanently raising the threshold for small business rate relief from £6,000 to a maximum of £15,000 and increasing higher rate relief from £18,000 to £51,000.

The government also introduced the national living wage, which will lift minimum hourly pay to £7.20 for over-25s, from its current level of £6.50, and to at least £9 an hour by 2020.

Small retailers say the change will predominantly hit businesses such as theirs, often at the heart of small communities.