Belfast Telegraph

The council elections can be a turning point for high streets

By Aodhan Connolly

Next week sees perhaps the most important local government elections in Northern Ireland in a generation.

This is the first local government election since the councils gained the enhanced powers for planning, regeneration, local economic development and tourism and car parking.

The councils will be looking to strengthen their mandate on shaping towns, cities and rural areas.

Given the Stormont stalemate has now entered its third year, it is crucial that local authorities push the envelope and allow mission-critical change to happen for business in Northern Ireland.

Our councils have already seen progress with the announcement of funding for the Belfast City Region Deal, Secretary of State Karen Bradley supporting the push for the Derry-Londonderry Region City Deal and further City Region Deals being discussed.

It genuinely is an exciting time for local government here, but more needs to be done to allow Northern Ireland to realise its potential, with high streets fit for the 21st century.

Long-term budgetary pressures, coupled with constraints on the public purse, are causing local authorities to think differently about how and which services they deliver and how they deploy resources as efficiently as possible.

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Transformation is also under way in Northern Ireland retail and is leading to fewer but better jobs within the industry, as well as a smaller store footprint.

These changes will have profound implications for our local communities, especially for employment prospects in areas more reliant on retail jobs, for the health of our town centres and for the revenues from the district rate that councils rely on.

The newly elected council administrations should ensure their policies and approaches towards retail are supportive and effective.

This is about more than simply backing business improvement districts and acknowledging the impact council tax rises have on disposable incomes.

For example, our town centres and high streets have a great deal to offer.

But with one in seven shops lying vacant, action is required to spur additional private sector investment and make it easier and less costly for retailers to expand store numbers.

I know from speaking to many shopkeepers that business rates is their biggest frustration, followed by costly, restrictive car parking.

If we are to see greater levels of shopper footfall and more vibrant high streets, new thinking is urgently required, with parking made easier and more affordable.

There are good example of councils taking a positive approach, and other councils should adopt the best practices.

Next week we launch a vision, not a tired old manifesto with 100 points trying to hold local government to account, but a few key themes that we hope will lead to a conversation on true partnership.

Let's make a real difference to thousands of retailers, suppliers and consumers, helping to deliver healthier and more vibrant town centres.

Derek McCallan of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association hit the nail on the head when he said: "We want everyone to vote and know what they are voting for - for local places and local services.

"The councils are planning our future."

We retailers are willing to do our part to make that future a successful one.

The NIRC local government document is available online from www.brc.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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