Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

How we can breathe new life into our dying villages

Help: derelict village shops in Northern Ireland, but in Britain High Street guru Mary Portas is offering hope to small retailers
Help: derelict village shops in Northern Ireland, but in Britain High Street guru Mary Portas is offering hope to small retailers

What terrorist bombs failed to do over 30 years, we - the public - are now achieving with our shopping habits. Without so much as a gram of Semtex, we are succeeding in tearing the very heart out of our cities, towns and villages - and no one seems capable of stopping the destruction.

What amounts to a social and community revolution is sweeping across Northern Ireland.

Wherever one looks across Britain, the Irish Republic and elsewhere in Europe, the despairing signs of vacant shop fronts reflect the same trend - the rise of the out-of-town hypermarkets, the collapse of in-town retailing.

Money talks. The planners acquiesce. The public votes with its feet, or rather at the wheels of its cars, to shop out-of-town.

As a result, our towns and villages are now shadows of their thriving past; the central streets abandoned, with no cohesive plans on how to fill the void.

In the ancient village in France where I holiday every summer, the same, sad sight greeted my eye this August.

The little main street now has more shops closed than open. On the outskirts of the village, huge impersonal hypermarkets continue to drive more of the local boucheries and boulangeries out of business.

As with Northern Ireland, the battle is all but lost in many places. The supermarket leviathans seem to be on an unstoppable march, armed with their loss-leaders, cut-price offers and acres of convenient car-parking. And yet, if nothing is done, town and village life everywhere will surely be the poorer.

In my French village, the mairie (or council) offers artisans, painters, craft-makers and fashion designers free, or preferential, property rates and even modest salaries as an incentive to take over empty shops and sell their wares.

The strategy appears to have limited success - particularly during the long winter months when the tourist season is over.

However, at least someone is trying.

There could hardly be a more obvious worthwhile community cause for Stormont to champion than the preservation of town and village life.

This is an issue which cuts across all political and cultural boundaries. No one section of the community is immune.

Whether a village is mainly Protestant or Catholic, unionist or nationalist, doesn't matter. The pain is the same for hard-pressed traders. The future looks bleak for all of them.

It is too simplistic to blame all shop closures on the recession. Direct rule ministers, in the past, gave unquestioning planning permission for supermarket chains at the expense of local retailers. In the quest for normality, permission was lightly granted for any outside investment. Now, at least, Stormont Executive ministers, such as Alex Attwood, appear to be thinking twice, but much more needs to be done.

Mr Attwood, as Environment Minister, is facing a big call. Will he or won't he grant planning permission for more retail shopping centres on the outskirts of Londonderry?

Or will he bow to the pleas of city-centre businesses and say enough is enough to the Tescos and Sainsburys and other supermarket chains which dominate today's shopping world?

Are there any solutions? The answer is there are plenty - if the Government in London and the Assembly in Belfast would care to address them urgently.

In Britain, the retail marketing celebrity consultant Mary Portas has produced a Government-inspired report, with more than 20 recommendations.

As a result, 12 towns in England have been singled out for special attention in a pilot scheme.

Here in Northern Ireland, a recent report compiled by Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Independent Retail Traders Association, lists 50 ideas to help town-centres.

The question remains as to whether anyone at Stormont, or in the local councils, has the will to develop a viable rescue scheme.

Meanwhile, the shutters come down on more shops - more than 1,000 last year and probably double that number this year.

In some towns, as many as 30% to 50% of all retail outlets lie vacant. No corner of the UK is suffering more.

We are leaving the next generation a legacy of ghost towns and villages, characterless and devoid of any vibrant heart. The environment minister says he will reveal his decisions on the out-of-town planning applications in Derry very soon. The traders are understandably suspicious that more bad news might be in the offing. Whatever his view, Mr Attwood's call will have ramifications far beyond the Walls of Derry.

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