Belfast Telegraph

Intervention called to stop high street 'Armageddon'

By Emma Deighan

Retail bodies have called on government to put a strategy in place to safeguard the retail industry in Northern Ireland following news that House of Fraser's future is still in jeopardy.

Rescue bids for the department chain were scuppered after disgruntled landlords of the 31 out of 59 stores it plans to close next year said they were unfairly prejudiced by the process and started legal action in Scottish Courts.

Yesterday the court challenge was settled.

One House of Fraser spokesperson said: "This commercial settlement has been reached to avoid the costs of litigation and allows the companies to continue its investment process without the CVAs being subject to the risk of further legal proceedings."

It is believed that the challenge has put off the retailer's main rescuer - C Banner, the Hong Kong listed firm and owner of Hamleys.

Furthermore, rumours that Sports Direct and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley would swoop in with a £50m cash plaster seem unlikely.

Belfast's Victoria Square store is not one of those stores earmarked for closure, but should the chain be forced to its knees massive voids will be left on many of the UK's high streets including the 10-year-old centre here which is already seeking to fill nine empty units.

Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of Retail NI, said: "What does not help is not having a Government in place and we need a retail strategy and that is long overdue.

"It wasn't even actively considered when Stormont was up and running. Establishing a town team that brings together key Government departments and councils to ensure a policy is aligned across the board in terms of rates, planning, infrastructure, is moving in the right direction."

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, added there are nearly 2,500 fewer stores in the UK than there were three years ago.

He said: "There needs to be an overhaul in our antiquated business rates system that is a disincentive to invest in Northern Ireland. Business rates are payable regardless of the profit a retail business may or may not be making...

"Our industry needs Government support to affect retail reinvention and prevent retail Armageddon. We need forward thinking to make sure our consumers spend time as well as their money in our towns and cities."

Neither retail chief would comment on House of Fraser.

However, Mr Connolly added: "Closures change the footfall dynamic for surrounding stores.

"While prominent units do replace tenants quickly, any further closures will again skew trading conditions and make conditions more challenging."

Belfast Telegraph

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