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Retail NI will lead from front in policy debate over economy's future

Opinion

By Glyn Roberts

To survive and indeed thrive in retail is a constant process of change and innovation - indeed change is the only constant in retail.

So it was time for the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) to change to Retail NI, to lead not just for independent retailers, but a champion for our wider local retail sector.

Retail NI's central policy objective will be to address the high cost of doing business in Northern Ireland that our members are experiencing.

In our 'programme for government', entitled Creating A Northern Ireland Economic Powerhouse, we reveal that 71% of our members' rates bills increased after the recent revaluation.

The perfect storm of cost issues including business rates increases, National Living Wage and auto enrolment pensions resulted in 67% reducing staff hours, 51% reducing staff numbers and 26% postponing or cancelling investment plans. A staggering 79% of members tell us that excessive regulation is the biggest challenge to their business.

This is a major wake-up call to political leaders in Stormont and Westminster that things have to change.

Retail NI's immediate priority is to ensure the implementation of the new rate relief scheme we jointly produced with Hospitality Ulster.

It adopts a targeted approach for the independent retail and hospitality sectors.

Our joint rates plan has the support of 30 business organisations representing retail, hospitality, manufacturing, food, pharmacy and Chambers of Commerce.

Given the huge level of support from right across the business community, our joint rates plan needs to be the top priority for the next Executive.

We also need a new 'belt and braces' entrepreneurship strategy to include the Executive, Invest NI, councils, colleges, banks and the private sector working together on an agreed plan. The Department for the Economy could take forward a new Enterprise and Small Business Bill to craft the policy framework to create conditions for the next generation of entrepreneurs, particularly new independent retailers.

Retail NI will work with MLAs to establish an Assembly all-party group on retail to ensure our sector's policy priorities are front and centre at Stormont.

We will work with the Department for the Economy and our six further education colleges to establish a new level 3 retail apprenticeship to help bring forward the next generation of retail entrepreneurs.

With huge economic uncertainty with Brexit, it is completely unacceptable that we have no Programme for Government, no Budget, no Brexit plan and worst of all no Government. We need leadership from our political parties.

The retail sector is not just our largest employer in Northern Ireland, it is our biggest sector of the economy.

Retail NI will give new leadership to our retail sector and ensure that our sector will be at the forefront of the policy debate on the future of our local economy.

Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI, formerly the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA)

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