Town Centre Fightback Needed

While many parts of the economy are enjoying a renaissance, sadly for our retail sector a sustainable recovery remains illusive, given the findings in recent surveys by property specialists lisney and the NI Retail Consortium.

The latter study was particularly worrying, showing that retail footfall was down 9.8 per cent compared against a 2.9 per cent drop nationally. Shop vacancy rates in Northern Ireland are also 18.5 per cent compared to 11.1 per cent in UK as a whole.

These grim statistics, then, show Northern Ireland to have the highest shop vacancy rate and the lowest retail footfall in the UK. However, we need to focus not just on the problem but the solution to create conditions for a revitalised retail sector in 21st century town centres.

The solutions are not just to be found in a shopping list for the executive – because our retail sector also needs to embrace change and be innovation leaders in what is fast becoming a digital high street.

The first minister and deputy first ministers must convene a special executive meeting to address this crisis, drawing up a Marshall Plan of measures.

Part of the problem is that responsibility for town centres is scattered across four different Stormont departments and we need to see a comprehensive joined-up plan covering business rates, planning policy, car parking and town centre regeneration.

We believe this new plan should include the creation of retail incubator units to support the next generation of retail entrepreneurs and a new vacant shop strategy. Instead of looking at the massive amount of empty shops in our town centres as just derelict buildings, let’s be ambitious and see them as the new retailers and small businesses of the future.

The executive should organise a major conference to bring together international experts in retail and regeneration to identify how other towns and cities across the world have successfully dealt with these problems and more importantly how we can learn from them.

The executive has brought forward some worthwhile initiatives such as the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme, empty Premises Relief and a car parking charges freeze. The challenge now is to build upon this and go further and faster with them.

But it’s not all down to government. Retailers themselves have a big role. With a combination of new technology, world-class customer service, a wide retail choice, strong cafĂ© culture and night-time economy, our town centres can offer something really different to consumers in a way out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres cannot.

NIIRTA and our colleagues in other business organisations are helping to organise Small Business Saturday on December 7 to encourage every consumer to make a special effort and support their local independent retailer on that day as part of their Christmas shopping.

Making shopping fun and something to look forward in 21st century town centres is, with the right help from the executive, something we can achieve. * Glyn Roberts is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA)