Ballymena always had a reputation as a thriving market town, a place where it was possible to buy most things and where a deal could be struck. So it is something of a shock to realise that one in five of the shop units in the town centre are now lying vacant. Of course the recession has had a severe impact on the retail trade, but there are other factors at work also.
Online shopping, out-of-town retail parks, greater mobility of shoppers and the impact of large multiples on the smaller independent stores all contribute to the malaise. And it is not just in Ballymena. Carrickfergus is the worst hit with 21% of units vacant and Portadown – once another thriving hub – also has 20% of its shops boarded up. It is a scene which can be seen throughout the province.
So it is timely for Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to attempt to tackle the problem. He has come up with a planning policy statement which will give the new super-councils power to discriminate in favour of town centres when judging planning applications. The councils will be expected to put town centres first when drawing up their development plans, although out-of-town and edge-of-town developments will still be able to go ahead, particularly for bulky goods.
It is clear that just allowing market forces to prevail will see the continued erosion of smaller businesses from town centres, so it is proper for councils to be given the power to intervene through planning. But that alone will not be enough. If the mere presence of shops was sufficient to guarantee their existence then the wholesale closures would not have occurred in the first instance.
We may wish for the return of the days of the local trader but we have to deal with the realities of the modern world of commerce.
Smaller independent traders need to offer customers something unique, allied to enhanced service. It may be niche marketing but it can be effective.