Northern Ireland's town centres shutting up shop at highest rate in UK
Boarded-up shops in Northern Ireland's town centres are at the highest level of any region in the United Kingdom.
Almost one in six stores (17.1%) in towns across the province are shut, a new survey has said.
That is significantly more than Scotland (11.1 %) or Wales (13.4 %) and well ahead of the next worst-performing region - the North of England and Yorkshire (13.1 %).
The research by the British Retail Consortium showed that one in nine (11.2%) stores have shut across the UK.
The footfall figure - the total numbers using the stores, is down 6.1% in Northern Ireland compared to the same May to July period for 2010 - with only the East and West Midlands and Wales higher, at 6.2%, 6.6% and 9.2% respectively.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the NI Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) said: "This bears out everything we have been saying that the out-of-town shopping centres are sucking the life out of our town centres.
Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Jane Bevis called the figures "worrying".
She said: "They show Northern Ireland has the highest town centre vacancy rate of any of the nations or regions and footfall is down more than 6% on the same quarter a year ago.
"Against this backdrop, the Northern Ireland Executive is proposing an extra tax on retailers, 40% of which would be paid by town and city centre stores. That can only make the situation worse. Retailers, small and large, need clarity and consistency to encourage investment and employment."
Mr Roberts, however, disagreed and said the Assembly's plans to increase taxes on out-of-town operations, currently out for consultation, would create a more level playing field.
Ms Bevis argued: "What's needed is comprehensive action to create safe, attractive town centres, where both independent retailers and the multiples, which often anchor them and drive footfall, can succeed."
Executive ministers plan to help struggling town centre shops with:
* Masterplans for over 20 towns across the province
* Public realm schemes to make town and city centres more attractive including Londonderry, Armagh, Newcastle and Craigavon.
* Urban Development Grants to help fund the redevelopment of property and new development sites.