Belfast Telegraph

£350m Omagh project prompts prediction of the end of town centres

Is the end in sight for the high street as we know it?

By Emily Moulton

Town centres in Northern Ireland will die out within a generation because they are largely out-dated and don’t offer modern shoppers the full retail experience, a leading expert has warned.

Donald McFetridge’s bleak assessment on the future of the local high street comes after it emerged outline planning permission had been granted for a £350m development on the outskirts of Omagh.

The proposal, put together by the same firm which is responsible for The Outlet complex in Banbridge, GML Estates, is to be built in the west of the Co Tyrone town.

For the past few decades this area has suffered under-investment, largely due to the presence of the Lisanelly Army barracks.

However, the base has now been closed and Omagh District Council has been working closely with the developers to regenerate the area and transform it into a gateway site for the town.

The Opportunity Omagh proposal, which is still in the early stages, includes a hotel, retail space, offices and health and leisure facilities and has the potential to create up to 1,000 jobs.

Local representatives have welcomed the Planning Service decision to approve the general plan, saying it will help to boost the local economy and strengthen its ambitions to achieve city status in 2025.

But critics say the out-of-town development — and others like it — will sound the death knell for small independent retailers.

The announcement also comes at a time when the Department for Social Development is setting aside millions of pounds to regenerate town centres which are potentially at risk from out-of-town multiple superstores.

Declan McAleer, chair of Omagh District Council, said the project had been developed as a way of attracting people into Omagh and disagreed with suggestions the development would attract shoppers out of Omagh.

“As a chair of the council, we do sympathise with individual traders who are anxious about their future,” he said. “It should be noted as a council we have been working very hard to promote the Omagh town centre.

“The fact remains that retail impact studies have identified that there is quite a substantial seepage of shoppers from Omagh who head out to other towns to do their shopping. We see this proposal as a way of potentially holding on to those shoppers.”

Sinn Fein West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty added: “This proposal represents £350m injection into this community; it has the potential to create up to 1,000 construction jobs over three years and 1,000 additional jobs when the facility is created.

“The site in question is within the development limit of Omagh town and there are strategic linkages, particularly the riverside walkway, which will link this development with the town centre.”

But Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retailers Trade Association, believes out-of-town developments are “deadly” for town centres.

“While we welcome many aspects of this application and the investment it will bring, we have serious reservations about the impact the proposed 60,000 sq ft out-of-town hypermarket will have on Omagh Town Centre.

“I cannot understand why the Planning Service rejected similar out-of-town applications in Banbridge, Larne and Ballyclare — but not Omagh?

“There is clear evidence that out-of-town multiple superstores lead to a net loss of jobs within five years and the closure of town centre retailers, as we have recently seen in Larne.”

Mr McFetridge, from the Ulster Business School/University of Ulster, said there was no clear evidence whether these complexes benefited towns or villages.

But he believes the traditional town centre will cease to exist within the next few decades.

“I am of the opinion that town centres, as we presently know them, are largely inappropriate and out of date for 21st century consumers,” he said. “They will not be around in 25 years from now.”

Are out-of town retail complexes the future? Two opposing views...

Donald McFetridge: Yes

Personally, I find retail developments like Junction One and The Outlet dull, soulless places.

However, consumers appear to love them and footfall figures for both these developments prove this point.

With respect to the contribution that such developments make, the jury is still out; some believe they bring more shoppers to the area, others believe that they damage nearby towns or villages.

I am of the opinion that town centres, as we know them, are largely inappropriate and out of date. Town centres need to be protected, but planners and town centre managers have a duty to see they provide an attractive retail offering for consumers; many have failed, which is why consumers shop out-of-town more and more.

Out-of-town developments offer one-stop shopping; consumers can supermarket-shop and shop for electrical goods, soft furnishings, furniture and electrical goods on most retail parks, eg, Riverside Retail Park in Coleraine. There is free, albeit often cramped, parking and shopping is in covered environments; weather has little impact on such developments. Town centres as we know them will not be around in 25 years. But you have to consider the elderly and the shopper who is not car-borne, who have often to use public transport to reach these retail parks.

Planners have to take great care when granting permission for new developments. Northern Ireland is superstore/supermarket-saturated. We need more mixed retailing to give consumers greater choice.

Town centres frequently consist of far too many mobile telephone shops, ‘To Let’ signs and cheap drapery outlets with only a few good independent drapery or footwear retailers providing the only unique retail offering.

Northern Ireland has many areas which are under-provided in terms of mixed retailing. I would say we are still 15 years behind most of the UK in terms of upmarket retailing. There are still opportunities for retailers keen to develop retail operations in NI.

Donald McFetridge is a leading retail expert at the Ulster Business School/University of Ulster

Glyn Roberts: No

I believe that out-of-town developments such as the one being proposed for Omagh are ‘deadly’ for town centres and I blame the current planning system for allowing them to go ahead. They are not ‘fit for purpose’.

Our organisation supports big multiple store developments coming to Northern Ireland, but we want to see them located in town centres, as is the case with Coleraine, Limavady, Bangor and Belfast city centre.

I do not want to see more complexes like the ones outside Antrim and Banbridge, because we feel they could lead to further closures of small retailers.

You have only got to look at Larne.

Asda was given planning permission for a big out-of-town store and we warned the council and we warned the Planning Service that this would result in retailers in the town centre having to close, because of reduced footfall.

And as a result an independent grocer had to close his doors last week with the loss of 40 jobs.

More alarming, I am aware of other retailers that are going to follow behind them.

That simply should not be allowed to happen — it could have been avoided if we had a fair planning system.

I have heard the argument that the Omagh development could act as a gateway into the area but it does not stack up.

The whole philosophy of the big multiple supermarket is that it is a one-stop shop.

Given that there are a number of similar such applications surely a better way would have been for the Planning Service to hold a public inquiry to look at all of them together and enable all sides a chance to have their say.

Opportunity Omagh also needs to explain to local traders how this development will bring more people into Omagh town centre, and also needs to reveal the identity of the multiple retailer.”

I believe this decision is a bad one for the future of Omagh town centre which will result in small retailers closing and a net loss of jobs in the long-term.

Glyn Roberts is the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA)

Analysis: Planning process for malls shouldn’t be influenced by threat to businesses

By John Simpson

Restricting retail developments in urban centres will always be controversial. There is no easy, correct answer. However, there are some critical principles to be followed.Controversy about planning decisions for new shopping centres is no surprise. Perhaps the factor which is least understood stems from different opinions on the criteria that should apply. Is it in the remit of the planning officials to take account of the impact of a new investment on the trading fortunes of the existing businesses? If so, to what degree?

Alternatively, is the role of the planning process mainly to protect the community from any adverse wider environmental impact of new developments?

In a choice involving just these two issues, there is a defensible guideline.

YES, the planning process must take account of the overall environmental impact including the shape of the built structures, access to services and any other generic operating restraints.

But NO, the planning process should not be influenced by the impact on the trading fortunes of existing businesses.

If the economy is to serve the community, then businesses must compete without official trading protection.

Two other factors should be part of the decision-making guidelines.

First, there need to be guidelines that the footprint of urban development should be constrained.

Dispersed developments across parts of green belt areas are aesthetically unwelcome. Protecting the green belt is a shared objective. Deciding where the green belt starts and ends is not so easy. Indeed, gradual creep into a defined green belt is something for the planners to resist.

But the green belt cannot be defined in an unalterable way. Modern society needs more space for residential living and commercial or industrial expansion.

A growing economy will need more space. Brown field sites are only a partial answer. The second major policy, which should be explicitly stated, is the response to accommodating (or not) customer usage of the private car.

Realistically, whilst customers are permitted to use cars more and more for daily tasks, there is an impossible stand-off if new supermarkets cannot gain planning permission along with a viable number of car parking opportunities.

Of course, many town centres cannot easily be adapted to offer enough car parking. Sprucefield, the Outlet, Junction One, Forestside and Holywood Exchange are all examples of developments that were unlikely to go into an area of traffic congestion.

The new Omagh proposal fits this category.

Unhappily for some existing businesses, town centre footfall and profitability is in decline. Until urban regeneration plans take a more realistic appreciation of the need for customer mobility, town centres will be squeezed.

Out-of-town centre shopping developments (but not too far out) are a logical response to lifestyles in this decade.

The rules need to tailor the planning response. Only a mixture of wishful thinking and commercial protectionism will protect King Canute!

Belfast Telegraph