Belfast Telegraph

Business Soapbox: Glyn Roberts

The chief executive of Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association is not seeking special protection for his members but a planning system which helps town and city centres host independent shops to support the community

At times the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) gets some unfair Press that we are anti-multiple supermarkets. We are not - we are anti-out of town supermarkets and would fully support and encourage the multiples to locate in our town centres where they contribute greatly to the overall retail offer to consumers.

All the independent research carried out shows that out of town supermarkets have an unfair competitive advantage over town centres. They also displace and destroy jobs from existing retailers in town centres and draw away vital footfall those independent stores rely on.

Having a strong planning policy which protects our town and city centres is absolutely vital and we urgently need the publication of draft Planning Policy Statement 5, which will go some way in ensuring that the multiples are encouraged to locate stores in town centres rather than unsustainable out of town locations. We also need to put in place a cap on the size of out of town retail applications as they have done in the Republic. Their cap has been a win-win situation because it has not impeded in any way the expansion of the multiples while still supporting their town centres.

A strong and vibrant town centre should offer the right mix of multiple, independent and niche retailers offering real choice to shoppers alongside an equally buoyant night economy of restaurants and pubs.

Our approach has been about pro-choice for consumers and a level playing field for all retailers in rates and a planning policy which supports sustainable town centre investment.

NIIRTA fully supports Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's proposals for the big supermarkets to start paying their way in rates. The big out of town stores are actually paying less per square foot in rates than many town centre small traders and it is right that this unbalanced and unfair policy is ended and the extra rates used to extend the small business rate relief scheme.

In Northern Ireland we passed the supermarket saturation point some time ago and we are concerned that the two dozen superstore applications, many of which are out of town, will result in one or two multiple retailers holding a dangerous monopoly of our retail grocery market.

Consumers will have little or no choice; farmers and suppliers will be beholden to the whims of the big chains.

Our independent retail sector offers real choice and something different to the consumer. Our members proudly support local farmers and source the vast majority of products from local suppliers. They also have been the route to market for helping to establish world-class companies such as Mash Direct.

When you shop in independent retailers this money is reinvested back into the local economy, supporting local suppliers and our town centres. The profits from the big multiples end up leaving Northern Ireland

Our members are never afraid of fair competition, nor are they seeking any special protection - they are seeking a fair planning system which supports town centres and equality in business rates.

Surely this is not unreasonable?