Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Riots are squeezing the lifeblood from city centre

'Guesstimates' of the cost of flag protests to the economy are wide of the mark. The damage is incalculable, says Donald C McFetridge

Retailers were - up until recently - reasonably optimistic about making the best of a disappointing year. Consumer confidence, we are told, has risen (albeit marginally) and we were even anticipating a 1% rise in retail sales nationally.

Based on previous experience, Northern Ireland has often exceeded national increases at this time of the year. Things were looking good.

However, the riots and political unrest has seen us take a retrograde step. This is the time of year when the majority of retailers make most of their profits - many depending on it to keep their doors open in the New Year.

If we think back to 1995 (post-IRA and loyalist ceasefires), we witnessed the beginning of a retail renaissance in Northern Ireland. Up until 1995, Northern Ireland retailing was, arguably, at least 15 years behind other regions of the UK.

During 30 years of unrest, when Stewarts, Crazy Prices and Wellworths were being bombed, the British supermarket chains had little interest in setting up here. However, the minute the situation calmed down, they were knocking on Northern Ireland plc's door.

Obviously, there's never a good time for trouble on our streets and there's definitely never a good time to send out this sort of news to potential retail (and other) inward investors.

At present, we have the highest shop vacancy levels in the UK and it is already an extremely challenging economic environment - not just for retailers, but for consumers, too.

Many are struggling to make ends meet and need to be able to feel safe to travel into Belfast to shop in the run-up to Christmas.

We have only to look back to the height of the Troubles to see the damage done to our city centres. Do we really want to see shutters, barricades, security staff at doors and body and handbag searches all over again?

It has taken years to restore the confidence to get shoppers back into our town and city centres. High car-parking charges and traffic congestion already put off enough potential shoppers without adding riots into the mix.

What we need now is really strong leadership from our politicians; not some point-scoring rhetoric which gets us nowhere.

We need them to play their part in helping to restore public consumer confidence and to take cognisance of the fact that the retail sector is one of the highest employers in the region and is vital to the future success and sustainability of our local and national economies.

Of course, it's not just the retail sector (both independents and multiple chains) which are losing out at this vitally important time of year; it's hotels, restaurants, service providers and multifarious operators in the services sector.

This situation does no one any good whatsoever.

The London riots of August 2011 reportedly cost the retail sector over £400m and, over the past week, I've seen a number of dubious 'guesstimates' of the cost of the recent troubles to our retail sector.

I couldn't (and wouldn't) put a cost on it - because it's priceless. The damage to consumer confidence cannot be accurately measured, nor can the long-term consequences of the effects of this sort of behaviour.

This year, the real store war has not turned out not to be Lisburn v Belfast (or vice versa); instead it's become a battle to try to get consumers back into the city centre.

We need Belfast to buzz again and we urgently want to see peace on our streets in order that shoppers feel safe.

If this abhorrent behaviour continues for much longer, it will sound the death-knell for many retailers and, while some may argue that it's not exactly Armageddon, it could spell the end of the world for many operating in an already-struggling retail sector.

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