Editor's Viewpoint: Saving our towns needs a team effort
No one can deny our town centres are in desperate trouble. Scarcely a day goes past without news that another retailer or some other business has closed.
In 2009 some 600 firms went to the wall with an estimated 1,000 more in 2010/11. Quite simply the province cannot afford to allow this haemorrhage of entrepreneurship to continue and drastic action is required to revitalise town centres to attract a greater footfall. The Executive has come up with some encouraging proposals such as a tax levy on large retailers and rates relief for small concerns.
But Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has come up with an even more innovative ideal, inviting retailing champion Mary Portas to lend her expertise to the search for a formula for breathing new life into town centres. She has already laid the groundwork with a review presented to the Westminster Government at the end of last year and her proposals could easily be transferable to this side of the Irish Sea.
The benefit of her approach is that she is unencumbered by political dogma and can draw on her experience to suggest measures which would make town centres more attractive to customers. Some proposals are simply common sense such as reducing car parking charges or providing free car parking and running town centres like a business.
But the problem is a wider challenge than just for Mr McCausland's department. He needs the support of colleagues in planning - with detailed blueprints drawn up for retailing, leisure and commercial usage both in town centres and out of town - and in finance with incentives for small businesses in town centres and penalties for allowing buildings to lie vacant. A balance also needs to be struck between making town centres pedestrian only zones and allowing access by vehicles for shoppers. But at least the minister has recognised the problems and seems determined to address them urgently. For that he deserves the praise of all who support local businesses.