House of Fraser owner urged to clarify future of Belfast branch
The new House of Fraser owner is facing renewed calls to clarify the future of its Belfast store following confirmation that three branches in England are set to close.
Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley has blamed landlords for putting hundreds of jobs at stores in Edinburgh, Hull and Swindon at risk after they refused to agree new terms.
Staff are currently engaged in redundancy consultation.
The retail giant, which recently bought the department store chain out of administration for £90million, has been in tense negotiations with landlords over rents in recent weeks, which have resulted in 20 branches and 3,500 jobs being saved.
However, there is still a question mark hanging over the Victoria Square unit.
Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of trade organisation Retail NI, said Mr Ashley "must make clear his long-term plans" and provide clarity.
"Mike Ashley, as a major shareholder in Debenham's, has got to reveal the nature of the changes he plans to implement," he said.
"House of Fraser is 170 years old and there is no doubt it needs to reinvent itself but the sooner that happens the better - he has to clarify the future of the Belfast store."
But Mr Roberts also noted the silence from Victoria Square's owners Commerz Real.
"I would have thought they would be going the extra mile to allay concerns over what would be a huge loss to the city centre - especially after the Primark disaster," he said.
However, Mr Roberts said that while there will be inevitable casualties as a result of the "unprecedented period of reconstruction" which the High Street is going through, he expects House of Fraser to survive.
"All retailers need to be in a constant process of adapting to change because those who resist are the ones who won't survive," he added. "But unfortunately change, especially a change of ownership, brings uncertainty with it.
"We have lost some big names but I would be very surprised if the future of the Belfast House of Fraser comes under threat because to my knowledge it's one of the best performing branches."
A fourth House of Fraser branch in Bath is also at risk of closing as Mr Ashley continues to tussle with Bath City Council, the store's landlord, over new rental terms.
The billionaire businessman, who also owns Newcastle United, branded landlords who have refused to agree new terms as "greedy".
It is understood they are reluctant to lower rent, in some cases to zero, which Mr Ashley is demanding.
Belfast solicitor Graham Pierce, who specialises in commercial property, previously warned that the retail boss will find it tough negotiating with the German investment fund that owns Victoria Square Shopping Centre.