Empowering small business can reinvigorate Northern Ireland's flat-lining town centres
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association
The date of April 1, 2015 is no joke for our system of government in Northern Ireland. It will be remembered as devolution day - the next stage of devolution in Northern Ireland, with Stormont giving away substantial powers to our 11 super councils.
Indeed, with all the difficult decisions that lie ahead of these councils, it remains to be seen just how 'super' they will be in the near future.
Planning, economic development, regeneration and off-street car parking are among the new responsibilities they will have. And with their role in supporting new-start small businesses, they will be central to laying the foundations for the next generation of entrepreneurs, who are central to our economic recovery.
Giving communities and businesses more opportunities to shape their areas with stronger and accountable councils is something the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) has always championed. This is why we produced a detailed 80-point programme for government, Local First, setting out priorities for the new councils.
Since its inception in 2000, NIIRTA has worked extensively with a network of town-based chambers of commerce to promote economic growth and sustainable town centre regeneration. We believe that our chambers of commerce are absolutely central to developing policy with the reformed councils.
While regeneration powers are to be transferred next April, these councils have real potential to be the change-makers in their town and city centres. Adopting a strong belt-and-braces, town-centre-first retail planning policy, a shop vacancy strategy, establishing incubator units for new-start independent retailers and effective town centre partnerships should be top of their list of priorities.
Instead of looking at the massive number of empty shops in our town centres as just derelict buildings, let's be ambitious and instead see them as the new retailers and small businesses of the future.
We need to think of the strategic positioning of town centres so we can reclaim 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.
Another crucial partnership for the councils to prioritise is with our six further education colleges. In order to support their new role in supporting new-start small businesses, each council should sign a partnership accord with their local college to ensure that a pipeline of skills is in place to support small businesses.
On car parking, meanwhile, the councils, at the very least, should continue the five-hours-for-£1-off' car parking scheme that NIIRTA successfully lobbied for to support traders based in the town centre.
While one size does not fit all, councils may decide to alter this and put something different in place with their car parks to support and attract shoppers. Town centres need to be able to offer a choice of affordable car parking and high quality, reliable public transport to shoppers.
These are exciting times for both government and businesses. While there are challenges ahead, with goodwill and good planning, there is huge potential for significantly improving our town centre environments and, indeed, 21st century retailing.