Belfast City Council has been accused of piling more red tape on top of struggling businesses with strict new rules which require a permit to distribute free printed material.
From May 1, when the order comes into effect, anyone handing out published material in certain zones of the city centre without a paid-for permit will be fined £80.
However, there are a number of exemptions to what can be handed out – including material of a political nature which can be handed out by the councillors who ratified the move.
The new order, aimed at tackling litter, means anyone who wants to hand out material to promote businesses can only do it if a permit is bought from Belfast City Council.
And if prosecuted, offenders face a fine of up to £2,500.
Free material is deemed to include leaflets/catalogues, balloons, stickers, newspapers, bags, wristbands and clothing. These will now be banned, unless paid for, in parts of the city centre, university area and other designated areas.
Representatives of independent retailers who are struggling in a tough economy have warned the council "has got it wrong".
A spokeswoman for the council said there is "no projected revenue for the scheme".
But businesses and traders will have to pay between £450 and £1,800 for annual permits and £75-£150 for a daily permit.
The legislation does not apply to the distribution of political, charitable or religious free printed matter. So while official Belfast City Council material would require a permit, political material handed out by councillors or anyone else wouldn't.
The exemptions, according to a council spokeswoman, "follow guidance from the Department of the Environment".
Prohibited areas will include the City Hall grounds and the surrounding Donegall Square as well as Cornmarket, Arthur Square and Castle Arcade.
And in the university area of south Belfast, University Road, Stranmillis Road and Botanic Gardens will also be prohibited zones.
A consultation that ran from December 12-29 last year received no formal responses, comments or objections. Belfast City Centre Management (BCCM), however, gave feedback about the scheme.
According to council records, among its suggestions were to issue permits only to local businesses to prevent out-of-town promoters advertising in the city centre. It also suggested relaxing the scheme for groups, including Translink, and lowering the cost of a permit for Government agencies to use the cobbled area in front of the City Hall.
BCCM was approached for further comment but a spokesman was unavailable.
SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy (left),chairman of the health and environmental services committee, said the policy, which will be reviewed in a year, was aimed at reducing the amount of litter that ends up on the city's streets.
"We understand that businesses need to advertise and advertise cheaply, but parts of our city are magnets for people distributing leaflets and it contributes to the littering problem which costs the council £11m yearly."
But Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, fears it will create more "red tape" for struggling businesses.
"I understand that tackling litter as the objective is a very commendable one. But I do think the council has acted high-handed on this. I'm not sure it has consulted widely enough on this."
Mr Roberts said many traders – smaller retailers in particular – still rely on flyers to market their business and urged the council to review the decision.
He praised the council for supporting struggling businesses through recent campaigns such as Backin' Belfast. But he added: "I believe this is one scheme where they have got it wrong and I would urge them to go back to the drawing board on this."
- The introduction of the Distribution of Free Printed Matter (Belfast) Designation Order 2012 falls under the remit of the Clean Neighbourhoods Act which came into effect last April and gave councils greater powers to tackle environmental issues.
- From May 1, 2013, when the order comes into effect, anyone distributing material without a permit will be fined £80, and if prosecuted, offenders face a fine of up to £2,500.
- Prohibited areas will include the City Hall grounds and the surrounding Donegall Square as well as Cornmarket, Arthur Square and Castle Arcade. And in the university area of south Belfast, University Road, Stranmillis Road and Botanic Gardens will also be prohibited zones.