Plan could see traders use vacant stores to show wares
Vacant sites on high streets and in shopping centres could be in line for a Stormont-led makeover, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
For retail bosses could be allowed to use empty premises for their own displays in a bid to improve the down-at-heel look of towns, villages and malls – without incurring extra rates bills.
A Stormont minister believes the initiative could help "arrest the decline" of high streets and some retail complexes.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton says he is examining the proposal from one of the province's leading shopping complexes, Buttercrane in Newry, which argues it amounts to more than just window dressing.
Centre manager Peter Murray said: "The high level of vacant retail space across Northern Ireland is having a detrimental impact on both tenant and consumer confidence.
"High levels of void space within a high street or shopping centre creates a negative impression... which will deter potential new interest from retailers."
And Buttercrane management believe the plan could boost the footfall of customers for recession-hit retailers.
DUP minister Mr Hamilton also argues the plan would be different from false shop front paintings and murals on vacant properties, on which Stormont has so far forked out £190,000.
In an Assembly answer, he argued: "(It would) allow the commercial use of window displays in otherwise vacant shops, without triggering a liability to pay the occupied rate." But there are fears the move could lead to pop-up shops suddenly appearing in front of vacant stores – and concerns over the impact on the advertising industry.
"The proposed policy would be significantly different from that used at present for non-commercial window displays. It is a proposal to allow existing shopping centre tenants to create window displays in vacant units to showcase their products and help to enhance a centre's appearance," Mr Hamilton told the Belfast Telegraph.
"In terms of practical issues, I want to ensure that someone cannot set up a retail business at the front of an empty shop in a shopping centre and then claim it is simply a display.
"Another concern is the impact it could have on the advertising industry."
The move would require new legislation, which is unlikely to come into effect for at least another year.
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Stormont has already spent thousands of pounds on virtual shop fronts across Northern Ireland.
Enniskillen was given a major facelift ahead of the G8 Summit just over a year ago. And vacant premises and facades were also covered over in Portrush for the Irish Open Golf Championship and Londonderry for the City of Culture year.
Now store owners say they could adopt a similar policy.