The first meeting of the Executive High Street Task force, aimed at revitalising Northern Ireland’s towns and cities, has taken place.
The task force – which was set up in August – met for the first time vritually on Tuesday, involving representation from five Stormont departments and the retail sector.
Figures from the Centre for Retail Research show nearly 180,000 jobs were lost last year largely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking on Wednesday following the meeting, the joint chairs of the new task force – Junior Ministers Gary Middleton and Declan Kearney - said the work of the body would be a “long-term project”.
“Our high streets are changing. The way we work, live, shop, enjoy leisure, access services, and travel is different today compared with five, ten and twenty years ago,” they said.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and deepened that change, but we know that its roots pre-date this. Retail trends, the prevailing economic mood and broader business landscape create an uncertain backdrop.
“It is in this context that we held our first meeting as the Executive’s High Streets Task Force, to identify all the challenges but also the solutions and actions we can take to support our high streets and city centres.
“Collectively, the Task Force includes a range of business representatives from retail, hospitality and elsewhere.
“But there is a recognition that these issues go far beyond business, and the broader membership includes: local government; academia; the voluntary and community sector; the culture and arts sector; tourism; and trade unions.
“That is as true in Belfast as it is in, for example, Banbridge or Ballyclare. The Task Force membership will use its networks to ensure a balanced approach that reaches across the entire region.
“With this, comes the understanding that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. Every high street is different; they each have their own character and personality. These traits as unique as the village, town or city where they are located. And they will need bespoke local solutions.
“It is about seizing control of that change, creating a new vision of thriving high streets where retail and hospitality can play their part.”