Mary Portas, the retail guru appointed by David Cameron to review British high streets, has called on the coalition to adopt "clear policies" and more "joined-up thinking" to save them, describing them as the "heartbeats" of local communities.
Speaking to Channel 5 news, Portas said: "We need to pull this together. We need some clear policies or planning. We cannot have a high street first policy, with the Government saying 'Yes, we believe in it' and then have the Secretary of State signing off out of town retail. That doesn't work.
"I think we need some very clear policies on how we develop tomorrow's new businesses. If you look at any business or any future growth one has to invest in the new, and at the moment the new can't come on the high street because the cost of rates.
"I have been speaking to businesses where their rates have been more than their staff costs and their rents together which is beyond ridiculous. So those are clear policies if the government are really saying we believe in it they need to invest in making changes around those policies."
Portas lavished praise on the "vital" high street, saying: "I talk about them as heartbeats. If you take away the infrastructure, you take away communities."
"I have seen the destruction when it goes, and I have seen when it works it's probably the most influential social infrastructure that we have in our lives," said Portas. "It is our community around our neighbours and our high streets, and I think to take that away would be a crime to communities and to society."
Portas' warning comes as new figures indicate the number of empty shops in the UK has fallen from a record high. The town centre vacancy rate stood at 11.1% in July, lower in April's peak of 11.9%, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium. This was helped by a 0.8% in footfall on a year ago and demand for summer food and items.
However, BRC director general Helen Dickinson said the findings showed the retail sector needed further help.
She said: "We've seen some cause for cautious optimism since the start of the year, but the path to recovery remains fragile."
In a YouGov survey for Channel 5 News, 63% of those asked said they did not think government policy had gone far enough to help ailing high streets. Meanwhile, just over half of those polled said they felt there was a future for the local high street, with a third disagreeing.
Housing Minister Mark Prisk said: "High streets are changing and this Government is committed to help communities adapt their high streets to meet those changes.
"We have taken clear action following the Portas Review, by lifting planning restrictions to help landlords make better use of their empty properties, doubling small business rate relief to help small shops and provided communities across the country with a multi-million pound package of support so they can try new ideas to drive their local economy.
"But this is just the start, which is why we brought together the Future High Streets Forum, made up of leading figures from the retail industry, to drive forward ideas and policies that help high streets thrive and prosper."Suggest a correction