Doing nothing about business rates is no longer an option... wholesale reform is needed
Opinion: As a report is released on reinvigorating the UK high street, Aodhan Connolly looks at the acute problems facing Northern Ireland
Today sees the release of the second Grimsey Report into what can be done to reinvigorate the UK's town centres led by retail veteran and former boss of Iceland and Wickes Bill Grimsey.
In the wake of recent news about Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVAs), administrations, closures and Brexit, politicians and officials in Stormont, Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster will be poring over the follow-up to An Alternative Future For The High Street published in 2013.
The second report looks how to better prepare our high streets and town centres for the 21st century and the mood music is that the report will make no bones that the Government is failing our high streets and the situation is untenable.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) has been calling for a change to the business rates system for years and this has been borne out in Grimsey's review. Doing nothing is no longer an option and wholesale reform of the business taxation system is needed - something we in Northern Ireland know better than anywhere else.
For UK retailers, Northern Ireland is the most volatile market. We have half of the discretionary income of our counterparts in Britain and our footfall is more erratic than anywhere else in the UK.
Our vacancy rate is over 14%, around 5% above the national average, and at worst one in five of our shops were lying empty.
We also have the inequitable dichotomy where retail is 12% of the economy but pays around a quarter of all business rates revenue.
However, it is clear that, to paraphrase Churchill, rates is the worst form of taxation... except for all the others. We need a fundamental review of the system where we audit the plethora of reliefs and exemptions to see if they deliver in 2018 and beyond.
We need to widen the tax base to ensure a level playing field.
We also need a lead retail official and a retail strategy if we are to ensure we don't fall behind our neighbours to the south and east. And we need to work with the hospitality and leisure sectors so that our high streets are places not only to shop, but to live and relax. In short, we need a reinvention of that space.
Grimsey is a real chance to focus minds, not only in our industry and Government, but for all stakeholders to work together to revive our high streets.
The NIRC and our members are willing to play our part.
Talking is good, but now we need action.
Aodhan Connolly is director of the NIRC