Belfast Telegraph

Assembly chiefs urged to help cut high rate of vacant shops

By Adrian Rutherford

Stormont has been urged to do more to boost town centres after a new report showed we still have the highest rate of empty shops in the UK.

One in six of our shops is lying vacant, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said.

Although the vacancy rate improved slightly in the last quarter, at 16.7% it is more than 6% above the UK average.

The slight improvement here can also be attributed to more pop-up shops and temporary lets, suggesting the long-term issue has still to be addressed.

Footfall in Northern Ireland also declined last month, down by 5.2% after three months of continued growth, the report showed.

Glyn Roberts from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said that, while the small decline in shop vacancies was welcome, significant work still needed to be done.

"At 16.7% we are still well over the UK national average of 10%," he said.

"It is an issue which the Executive and the 11 new supercouncils must address as a matter of priority."

The national town centre vacancy rate in the UK was 10.1%, down from April's rate of 10.6%.

Although Northern Ireland's figure is much higher, it has fallen for the third successive quarter and is now the lowest it has been since 2012.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said it was cause for optimism.

"We are delighted to announce these figures. Not only has this been the third successive quarter to see vacancy figures fall but this is the lowest the figure has been in two years," he said.

"However, there is still work to be done as our vacancy rates are still the highest in the UK."

According to today's report, footfall in Northern Ireland dropped by 5.2% in July – the first decline since February.

Again, Northern Ireland was the worst performing area in the UK. Mr Connolly said it was unclear whether it was part of a longer-term trend.

"There is no obvious reason for this footfall decline and we look forward to seeing the footfall results for August when we will know if this is merely a blip or is it a trend," he added.

Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at Springboard, said the decline in footfall last month contrasted with the increase of 3% in July 2013 and the modest fall of 0.6% across the UK.

"On a positive note, Northern Ireland's vacancy rate continues to improve and whilst at 16.7% it is still the highest of anywhere in the UK, the trend is in the right direction with a steady drop in each of the three quarters from October 2013," she added.

"Nationally it reflects a growing flexibility and responsiveness of landlords in the face of tough trading conditions, which has increasingly included the introduction 'pop-up' shops and temporary lets, and it is heartening to see that Northern Ireland is also benefiting from this.

"However, the key issue for town centres in Northern Ireland in the longer term is the extent to which any temporary let is converted into long-term occupation beyond the summer and into the key Christmas trading period."

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