Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Bringing our high streets back to life

A walk along the main streets of many of our towns and cities will reveal the depressing sight of boarded up premises which once were thriving retail businesses.

It is estimated that some 1,000 shops, many of them owned by independent traders, have closed in the past year due to the ravages of the recession and competition from out-of-town multiples.

Unless urgent action is taken it is a trend which is set to continue as experience shows that closures will beget more closures in a vicious circle of despair.

There are a number of measures which have been proposed which could stem this haemorrhage of businesses from the high streets including rate relief for small businesses, the introduction of a lower rate of corporation tax, incentives for firms starting up in business and even free leasing of properties until businesses become established. Investment in public realm to make town centres more attractive is one government regeneration ploy which can also pay dividends.

But there is no magic bullet answer to the trials of the retail sector and the public and potential entrepreneurs also need to play their part with some left-field initiatives.

Take for example the little Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye which has reinvented itself as a centre of literature with one of the world's largest book festivals, a concept which it has exported to various other parts of the world, gaining itself an international trade award.

Northern Ireland has many very beautiful towns and villages which could regenerate themselves as centres of arts and crafts, tourism-linked businesses, cultural havens, even music festival locations. It was such a spirit of invention and creativity that once made the province an economic power-house.

One only has to look at some of the successful businesses which are not only trading but are very profitable today to realise that same spirit still exists but needs to be harnessed and nurtured. In these desperate times communities have to look within themselves - and not just to government - for answers to their economic plight.

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