Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Cities' war of words won't win customers

It's a festive tale of two cities - so where will you be headed for the Christmas shopping this year? Only in Belfast? (To quote the capital's marketing message). Or for "City Glam" will you be avoiding the "Traffic Jam" and heading for the cheaper parking of Lisburn? (Again I quote from that city's seasonal ad campaign.)

With the countdown on to the busiest few weeks in the retail calendar the gloves have come off - in Lisburn anyway - with marketing chiefs there deciding (to slightly paraphrase an old paramilitary marketing slogan) that Belfast's difficulty could be Lisburn's opportunity.

And Belfast, let's face it, has certainly been having its much-publicised difficulties.

Council bosses, roads chiefs - they were all warned some months back that traffic congestion (which in fairness is nothing like as bad as it was) traffic wardens, accessibility concerns and parking charges were putting shoppers off heading into the city centre.

The general thrust of roads policy in Belfast seems to be that cars are not really welcome.

This is fine and dandy for the single shopper who is happy to travel by bus, won't be buying anything too bulky to carry and has lots of time on their hands.

But if you need a car because of mobility problems, you're a family with children, you've got a lot to buy or you're travelling a fair distance ...

I really don't want to do Belfast a disservice here. I absolutely love the place. But I also don't believe that the fallout from Belfast on the Move has done the city centre and in particular city centre businesses, any great favours.

Last Saturday, on the bus into town, I overheard two very elderly ladies complaining bitterly about how long the journey was taking.

It occurred to me, if you're testing the patience of octogenarians what hope is there that you'll attract the younger commuter on board? And the younger commuter does have a ready choice.

As well as the cities of Belfast and Lisburn (I still find it hard to think of Lisburn as a city) there's the open and welcoming metropolis of eBay and all those other internet destinations where parking is free, you don't have to carry bags, it never rains and the only red coat you'll see is that fabulous one by Dame Vivienne on Matches.com.

That shocking statistic revealed this week that one in five shops across Northern Ireland now lies vacant - the worst tally in the UK - is a grim reminder of the desperate times retailers are facing.

You cannot fault Lisburn for pitching itself as an attractive alternative to Belfast.

But this should not be about a war of the cities. It should be about government here battling to do its level best for the retail industry in all our cities and all our towns.

This is not just about keeping shops open, it's about consolidating jobs.

Customers are the lifeblood of the retail industry, so any move to make shopping areas more attractive, must (in the words of that Belfast marketing slogan) B welcome.

Cheaper, even free parking, for a start. The aim of Belfast on the Move was supposedly to get the place moving. Not surely, to get the customer base moving to Lisburn...

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