Belfast Telegraph

Fake shop fronts are just papering over the cracks

LINDY McDOWELL

COME back Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. The Department for Social Development needs you. Laurence, who was last seen tootling around our shores with his wife Jackie in the TV show Northern Exposure, is perhaps best known to us all as the flouncy-cuffed, interior design makeover king from Changing Rooms. His speciality was transforming suburban naffery into Tutankhamen-themed opulence using MDF and vast quantities of turquoise emulsion. The DSD's trick is something similar -- transforming urban blight into fake shopfronts using exterior gloss and vast quantities of taxpayers' money.

Could there be a new opening for Laurence, given the recent expansion of Nelson McCausland and Co, Painters and Decorators? In recent days, we've learned that Nelson and his team of dungarees at the DSD have roller-brushed somewhere in the region of £8.2m around rundown shopping areas of Northern Ireland in order to impress visiting golfers, cyclists, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

Derelict shops have been given fake facades depicting record shops, book shops and small grocers. The sort of shops, in other words, which have been forced out of business in recent years. There's a twee, nostalgic look about these painted-on fronts. It's commerce from another era. One even depicts a couple of geese wandering through the front door. Try getting that pair past Environmental Health these days.

On the positive side, the faux fronts are easier to look at than the paint-peeled eyesores they are there to disguise. But there is a downside -- £8.2m worth of downside, to be exact. That is one hell of a bucket of gloss, Mr McCausland. We're told the cash has paid for 59 different 'projects' in towns right across Northern Ireland. Roughly £40,000 a pop, then. So who got the contract? Michelangelo?

As has already been pointed out in many quarters, this money could have been used to start up real businesses. Or to offset the hefty rates so many city/town centre businesses buckle under. It could have been used for any number of imaginative schemes to breathe real life into these places.

Instead, it went on a quick cosmetic makeover. So very, very Stormont. This is the equivalent of going into the hospitals and giving the patients a quick lick of blusher to make it look as though they're on the mend.

Critics describe the fake shopfronts scheme as papering over the cracks. And that, on every level, just about sums up what Stormont excels in. Where Stormont is concerned, there is no problem or crisis which cannot be sorted by the simple process of throwing a large bucket of money at it. It could easily be argued that much of the blight that has settled upon our towns and cities and exemplified by those deserted, derelict shops is a direct result of Stormont policy. A policy that has hoicked rates and hit would-be customers in cars with punitive parking charges. A policy geared against high street survival.

Easy, of course, to blame it all on recession and the onward advance of the internet market. But what did Stormont do to alleviate any of that? Nothing. Why save real shops when the budget can be spent later colouring-in fake ones?

Yes, of course, you could argue that there is sense in tarting the place up a bit to make it look good for visitors. But how galling those expensive images of Mr Green the Greengrocer inspecting his trays of root veg must appear to real shop owners forced out of real shops and into debt without any help whatsoever from Stormont. How insulting to real shop workers forced onto the dole.

What the fake makeovers really reveal is that there is no overall strategy or plan at Stormont.

There is no central cohesion. It is a collection of competing departments run as party political fiefdoms serving primarily party political interests.

The big house on the hill is a mess. And no amount of emulsion can paint over that.

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