Communities Minister must invest in town centres
While the new executive departments for the Economy, Finance and Infrastructure are all key players in supporting economic growth, we shouldn’t forget the importance of another — communities.
Among its many responsibilities are urban regeneration and town centres and in our first meeting with Communities Minister Paul Givan last week, NIIRTA urged him to ensure that Executive investment in town centres is an integral part of the new Programme for Government.
NIIRTA outlined its own Programme for Government priorities for communities and highlighted that Northern Ireland has nearly twice the UK average of town centre shop vacancies. With nearly one in five shops vacant, the Executive needs a new strategy to address this serious economic and social problem.
A new comprehensive town centre dereliction strategy is needed to turn this problem around.
NIIRTA has long championed the need for vibrant and diverse town centres — centres of excellence for both retail and hospitality. To survive in modern retail it is a constant process of change, innovation and embracing new technology to reach out to an increasingly sophisticated consumer.
The department should work with councils and the private sector to establish town centre retail incubator units in vacant shops to encourage start-up retailers and provide affordable rents and marketing support for their first year of trading.
Ballymena Business Centre has already established a Town Centre Enterprise Hub in Church Street and this model should be replicated throughout all town and city centres.
We urged the minister to establish a Northern Ireland Town Team to co-ordinate town centre Regeneration policy. Membership of this could include Departments for Finance, Economy and Infrastructure, the 11 councils, retail and hospitality business organisations.
NIIRTA also wants to see a target date of 2019 for the full devolution of regeneration powers from DoC to the 11 councils to ensure they are in the driving seat to develop their town centres.
Town centres are living and breathing spaces where consumers can enjoy a rich and diverse experience that is not available on-line or in a retail park.
Unique and characterful shops, cafes, restaurants, essential services, brand name retailers and cultural events are an essential part of what makes the high street different and appealing.
Town and city centres are eco-systems for many different types of business and we need to focus in supporting their growth to boost footfall and sales for retailers.
As the Association of Town & City Centre Management rightly says, we need to think of the strategic positioning of town centres to reclaim them to their rightful position and role as places that serve their communities, visitors, businesses and key stakeholders, with a quality of experience that encourages them to keep coming back, and staying longer.
While the last Executive established the long-awaited Town Centre First Retail Planning Policy, five hours for £1 discounted off-street car parking and the Empty Premises Rate Relief Scheme, the current one needs to be even more ambitious if we are to create town centres for the 21st century.
Instead of looking at the massive amount of empty shops in our town centres as just derelict buildings, we need to be ambitious and see them as the new retailers and hospitality businesses of the future.