An explosion in the number of boarded-up stores across Northern Ireland has fuelled fears for the future of town centre shopping.
Shuttered shops and ‘To Let’ signs are threatening to turn once thriving retail hubs into ghost towns all over the province.
A record number of shops and bars closed their doors after Christmas following a poor festive season for retailers, which was exacerbated by the extreme weather conditions.
The recession is also clearly taking its toll, but struggling retailers cite a long-term trend of shoppers preferring out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping as key factors affecting town centre trade.
But concerns have been raised that the spiralling number of shops closing down is sucking the life out of our town centres.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, blamed the number of out-of-town retail applications which have been approved.
He said: “If this continues then in 20 years I don’t believe we will even have an independent retail sector or sustainable town centres.”
Lisburn independent retailer Peter Houston added: “Sales have been dented by the internet and a lot of the trade has moved towards the other end of town to Bow Street Mall.
“But Lisburn is no worse than towns across Northern Ireland. Takings are down everywhere.
“There is less money about, but people are going to the shopping centres because they can park their cars and shop in all weather.”
Mr Houston said councils need to do more to encourage people into town centres, in particular by providing more car parking.
The Belfast Telegraph asked Social Development Minister Alex Attwood, who is responsible for urban regeneration, what he was doing to protect our town centres.
He conceded that retail was facing a “difficult time” because of the economic climate and urged his Executive colleagues to make more money available to regenerate town centres.
“I have argued that more money needs to go into town centres and I made a major bid for urban money last summer with the Executive, which was unsuccessful,” Mr Attwood said.
“I feel the value and role of town centre renewal in local jobs, new jobs, footfall, attracting tourists and undoing the legacy of conflict needs to be more fully acknowledged and an essential element in our economic strategy.”
The minister said he had a three-point strategy to grow town centre development:
l The DSD has provided funding for the preparation of masterplans for over 20 towns across Northern Ireland.
l DSD funding has been provided to improve the public realm in town centres including Londonderry, Armagh, Newcastle, Downpatrick, Portadown and Lurgan. Similar schemes are planned for Dungannon, Carrickfergus and Portrush if the Budget is confirmed by the Assembly.
l The department is providing urban dvelopment grants to help fund the redevelopment of commercial property and by assembling sites for new developments. Executive approval is being sought to start the process of development on eight sites in towns across Northern Ireland.
One town which has had some success in regenerating its centre is Portaferry in Co Down.
Portaferry Regeneration Limited is working on a business case for £1.28m funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to assist 27 properties in the historic town.
“This is not just about giving these premises a facelift but ensuring they become sustainable businesses that will regenerate the town,” said Will Brown, project manager.
“There is great tourist potential for the development of tearooms, coffee shops and art galleries. We also have a lot of demand for office space.”
Mr Brown said Portaferry had declined partly due to people driving to larger towns and shopping centres and online shopping.
“We can reverse the decline of Portaferry’s town centre by promoting it as an attractive place to live and work to the growing number of professionals and businesses that can work remotely using broadband,” he said.