Belfast Telegraph

Platform: Now is the time to revive our retail


By John Tougher

With the deadlock at Stormont reaching its 14th month, the business community in Northern Ireland is all too accustomed to uncertainty.

However, a slew of famous names have announced a wave of store closures affecting premises across Northern Ireland. From pizza to flooring, the squeeze on the high street is hitting household names hard.

With Toys R Us and Maplin among the latest well-known names to enter administration, and with New Look, Prezzo, Mothercare and Carpetright all negotiating with their lenders to secure rescue deals, experts are signalling a crisis on the high street.

Consumer spending across the UK has also declined for the first time in five years with uncertainty around Brexit, reduced wage growth and the looming hike in interest rates causing shoppers to curtail spending.

With one pound in five now spent online, are we seeing the beginning of the end of many of our bricks and mortar stores?

As Toys R Us and Maplin potentially vacate stores in Newtownabbey, Londonderry, Boucher and Sprucefield, time will tell how many vacant units other stores may leave behind.

The impact of a tough trading climate on commercial landlords is a legacy of possible rent arrears, rates liabilities, dilapidations and a struggle to re-let in an uncertain climate. As always, it pays to be heed the warning signs.

Landlords should make use of rent deposits to offset any arrears and may wish to agree monthly rental payments to assist tenants with cash flow. As rent arrears mount, the landlord may wish to consider action against any guarantor, issuing formal proceedings for rental recovery or taking the premises back. However, if the worst happens the landlord may be restricted.

If a tenant enters into a creditors voluntary arrangement (CVA) (like Toys R Us before administration) then the landlord is bound by those terms, as a creditor.

Whether the landlord can pursue arrears or take other action is dependent on the CVA.

Full recovery of arrears is extremely unlikely, and a creditor landlord may elect to pursue liquidation of the tenant entity with a lease disclaimer to follow if they have a good chance of re-letting the premises quickly, or better still, have another tenant lined up.

The ability to pursue liquidation will depend on the number of other creditors and their appetite to pursue a CVA.

Once insolvency proceedings are in place, the landlord's ability to take back the premises is limited unless willing to agree a surrender.

The key to longer term stability must lie in regenerating the retail sector. Increased emphasis on shopper experience has seen Waterstones flourish despite the rise of Amazon. If tenants are to invest in "retail experience" and other methods to boost footfall and sales, they will look to our political leaders to provide stability around the future of our high streets.

With the new budget announced by Secretary of State Karen Bradley, there is little comfort for retailers with a 1.5% rates rise and no mention of the rates reform announced by Mairtin O Muilleoir in November 2016, which would have seen a £22m fund for the retail and hospitality sectors in Northern Ireland.

With the collapse of the institutions in January 2017, the promised assistance for retailers has not materialised.

One thing is clear: whether we have the restoration of a devolved government or the imposition of direct rule, the business community and retailers, in particular, will look to the incoming minister to take steps to stem the flow of stores exiting our high streets and to see new enterprises taking the space left vacant by those firms whose decline we have witnessed over the past fortnight.

Belfast Telegraph

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