NI footfall figures up 4% but high vacancy rates dampen celebration among retailers
Footfall in Northern Ireland shops in January has defied a UK trend slump to rise by almost 4%, according to a report today.
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But the NI Retail Consortium said the province's "outdated" rates system means there is little cause for celebration, with shop vacancy rates also creeping up to 14%.
Two council areas - Belfast, and Derry and Strabane - have already pushed up the district rate element of rates bills.
According to the latest Springboard data for the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), footfall in Northern Ireland continued to increase in January at a rate of 3.9%, up from 2.2% in December.
It was the fourth consecutive month of growth for NI and the largest rise of all UK regions. High street footfall picked up by 4.7% while shopping centre footfall was up by 1.7%, ending 15 months of decline, according to the report.
But the report also reveals that town centre vacancy rates in Northern Ireland were up 0.4% to 14% in January, over 4% more than the UK average of 9.9%.
Aodhan Connolly, director of NIRC, said: "The excellent start to 2019 in footfall continues with a four-month run of growth and a rise in eight out of the past 12 months.
"And while the 3.9% increase beats both the three and 12-month averages, retailers are finding it hard to celebrate in the face of so much uncertainty for their industry.
"As well as obvious concerns on Brexit, they also have serious concerns about the outdated business rates system in Northern Ireland which is unfairly weighted against retailers who pay 24% of business rates despite being only 12% of the economy.
"We have already seen rises in the district rate from Derry and Strabane Council, as well as Belfast City Council, with others sure to follow, and we have no idea yet of when the regional rate for business will be struck.
"This uncertainty and these rises make Northern Ireland a less competitive place to do business. We need a quick declaration of the NI regional rate and we need to see progress from the Department of Finance on rates reform immediately."
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said vacancy rates in Northern Ireland "reflected ongoing challenges faced by retailers".
Meanwhile, UK-wide figures showed a drop in high street footfall of 0.7% in January. Retail parks and shopping centres also experienced declines at rates of 0.39% and 0.9% respectively.