Belfast Telegraph

Glyn Roberts: It's time the economy was right to the fore in local government

The head of Retail NI says councillors elected after tomorrow’s polls must put their towns and villages first

By Glyn Roberts

Tomorrow, voters in Northern Ireland will head for the polls to elect the next generation of local councillors. Given that NI's Assembly remains in a state of deep-freeze, these elections deserve a great deal more attention and scrutiny than they have done in the past.

Most of the party manifestos and media coverage of the election has been focused on issues such as Brexit, border polls, equality and the omnipresent "vote for me or you'll get them" rhetoric that continues to plague any election.

This election is not about orange and green, it's about who can best run our 11 local councils to achieve the dynamic step change needed to move our economy forward. Retail NI members are interested in key policy challenges such as keeping rates low, affordable car parking, effective planning policy and regeneration.

The councillors who'll serve our 11 council areas will have a hugely important remit. It might not sound great on a party broadcast, but these are the issues the NI electorate need to hear about and should be the only factors taken into consideration as they enter the polls.

One area where councillors can exert tremendous influence is local economic development and, more specifically, town centre regeneration. As the only business group to have set out a comprehensive regeneration agenda, my plea to all 462 councillors is to put the regeneration of their villages, towns and cities as the number one priority for this next term.

Retail NI is the leading voice for Northern Ireland's retail industry and is reinforcing its commitment to reverse the decline of our town and city centres. It is not just our physical spaces that need to be regenerated; we must regenerate the ways in which we approach and tackle the numerous issues facing our high streets.

On May 9 Retail NI and DWF Law will host an event aimed at exploring new ideas and thinking to create 21st century town centres.

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We are pleased to welcome both Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter and Permanent Secretary for the Department of Finance Sue Gray as our keynote speakers. I am urging all newly elected councillors to come along and hear from these leading industry experts on how we can reinvent retail, reform business rates and reboot our high streets.

Retail NI's signature policy document 'Regeneration NI - Creating 21st Century Towns and City Centres' will take centre stage throughout the event and I look forward to discussing in more detail the many policy priorities we have outlined in the paper.

Our priorities include all councils adopting an effective shop vacancy strategy and gaining vital powers over regeneration.

Introducing and implementing smarter technology within our towns and cities is imperative if we are to make retail more experiential and we are calling for councils to adopt a wider approach to town planning where retail, hospitality, industry, housing and healthcare services can cohabit, thus creating an ecosystem of opportunity where shops are just part of the plan.

Our plans may sound ambitious but Retail NI is confident these aims can be achieved. To anyone vying for election success tomorrow, I wish you well but more than this, I implore you to commit your council area and your party to work with Retail NI on our quest to regenerate towns and cities across NI.

Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI. Visit rebootingthehighstreet for info on its joint conference with Retail NI

Belfast Telegraph