Belfast Telegraph

Business Soapbox: John Friel

Town centres are the lifeblood of the retail economy. The Federation of Small Businesses has thousands of members in Northern Ireland who offer all manner of goods and services.

The high street is under attack as never before. I don't mean from uneducated vandals, nor from recession-ravaged customers' pockets, nor from higher prices, although these all take their toll at various times and in various ways. No, I mean from the acts and omissions of our local politicians.

Town centres are the lifeblood of the retail economy. The Federation of Small Businesses has thousands of members in Northern Ireland who offer all manner of goods and services in high street shops throughout the Province.

The cluster-effect of town centres creates a critical mass that sustains much more than each of the individual traders. Restaurants, coffee and sandwich bars, heel bars, newsagents all carry on business because of the presence of shoppers in the town centres. They provide employment, pay rates taxes and keep the whole economy moving. We should salute them and do all in our power to support and protect them.

Yet far from helping, our local politicians are acting against these pillars of our economy by proposing to introduce new or increased parking charges in up to 30 towns. This is folly.

One proposed solution is to introduce "out of town" levies - a charge on the large retail units where acres of tarmac offer free parking for their customers. If such a levy were to be used to scrap the proposed town centre charges, it might sound enticing; big businesses being charged to support small businesses - out of town paying for town.

But would it really be the right answer? Those multinational chains would simply pass the charges on in the form of price rises to the same consumers that the local town centres need. Government would be taking yet more money out of the pockets of customers so as to avoid having to cut back on what they do or spend our money better. If they don't refuse to cut their own expenditure, then the levy is a more palatable option for small businesses than town centre parking charges; but far better to leave the money in the consumers' pockets and avoid any new charges, levies or taxes on any business - big or small.

Popular