Business groups representing large and independent retailers have put forward opposing proposals to safeguard and strengthen Northern Ireland’s high streets.
A survey by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found that 17.1% of town centre retail units in Northern Ireland were lying vacant in May — the highest rate of any UK region. The UK average is 11.2%.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) — the local arm of the BRC — wants city and town centres assisted through the creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which are being established widely across Britain.
BIDs allow local governments working in partnerships with local firms to levy higher business rates to pay for schemes designed to increase trade. The use of BIDs would be more effective than the NI Executive’s preferred option, a Large Retailer Levy, says the NIRC.
Jane Bevis, director of the NIRC, said: “Town centres do need re-invigoration and investment, but the proposed Large Retailer Levy is a blunt instrument, which would do more harm than good.
“Enabling the creation of Business Improvement Districts instead would allow retailers to get directly involved with specific initiatives. There are also practical steps which could be taken now to help all town centre businesses, such as improving public transport, providing affordable parking and having effective crime-prevention measures.”
But the proposal was rejected by the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA). Its chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “We have always supported BIDs. That is not an alternative to the Large Retailer Levy. That is a very different scheme. The proposed levy is an extension to the small business relief scheme. That is the sector that is suffering, and which needs help and support.
“The majority of the members of NIRC continue to make millions in profits every year and build out-of-town shopping centres. It’s grossly unfair that lots of NIRC members are paying less in rates at massive out-of-town shopping centres than some of our small members are paying in town centres.”
NIIRTA is seeking support from NI chambers of commerce for the extension of small business rate relief, asking them to support a ‘Fair Rates for Small Traders’ campaign.