What a year. Who would have thought it as we celebrated the Top 100 this time last year, we would now be in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, destroying lives and livelihoods in every part of the planet?
t has been said many times, but the world will never be the same again, particularly the economy.
Now more than ever, our Top 100 companies will have an indispensable role in supporting jobs, investment and most important of all, leading the way forward toward the revival and recovery of our battered economy. The reality is that until a vaccine is produced, our Top 100 and the business community as a whole will have to find creative ways to safely work around this virus and protect as many jobs as possible to avoid the high levels of poverty which will only exacerbate the mental and physical health problems within our communities.
The rules of the economy have been completely rewritten, as has the role of Government intervention, but could Covid-19 be the driving force of our time to transform economic thinking and create a new paradigm for business? Will it mean many new and different companies making next year’s Top 100?
Getting back to the role of Government, in our discussions with UK Cabinet ministers and Executive ministers, Retail NI has outlined the need for an intensive one-year recovery plan and stimulus package to address the immediate challenges facing our local economy. We also need to give some thought on what a longer-term post pandemic economic plan would look like. Before this crisis, Retail NI, as part of Trade NI, published its Vision 2030 plan, setting out how to create 65,000 new jobs and transform Northern Ireland’s economy into an eco-system of innovation. Our plan is even more relevant now than before.
It’s fair to say that Covid-19 is also the biggest ever challenge to our retail sector and high streets to date, resulting in the fall of newsagent and bookseller Eason and many other well-known businesses. With the furlough scheme tapering off and as the recession deepens, sadly we are going to see many more high street casualties. Let’s be clear - we are not facing a high streets crisis any longer but a high streets emergency. That is why Retail NI successfully lobbied the Executive to establish a High Streets Taskforce, to ensure a co-ordinated approach across Government, councils and business to identify solutions and start the long road to build back better.
Part of the solution to this challenge lies in fully developing and implementing the concept of ‘localism’ to repurpose our town and city centres as unique hubs at the heart of our community. As Mary Portas said in her groundbreaking report, it’s a matter of to reimaginging them as “destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning”.
Some interesting trends emerged from our recent Independent Retail Awards online vote, showing that in our rural towns, people have been supporting local independent retailers in greater numbers and staying local to shop and socialise in a way they didn’t do before the pandemic. It will be interesting to see the impact that home and remote working will have on how and where people spend their money, and will the traditional concept of the ‘office’ change forever as a result of Covid-19? Could many of our rural towns and villages make a serious economic comeback?
It is also absolutely vital that the Executive now works with many of the Top 100 and business on a strategy for the safe return of office workers to their place of work. This is crucial, not just for Belfast city centre, but for the economic future of all our major towns and cities in Northern Ireland. Office workers provide a large amount of footfall and trade for the retail and hospitality sectors in many of our high streets. Given that both sectors are facing severe difficulties at the minute, the return of office workers is vital for their viability.
Retail NI members have always championed localism, priding themselves in supporting local suppliers, producers and manufacturers, many of which make up the Top 100. In fact, 70p in every pound spent with an independent retailer is recycled around this supply chain and other local businesses. This is why we want to see localism ‘on steroids’ along with the reimaging of our high streets as destinations where residents and visitors can dwell as they work, rest and play as the central policy priorities of the Executive’s recovery plan to drive future post-pandemic prosperity.
Localism is not just about supporting independent retailers; it is also about empowering people and communities to reshape and repurpose their local villages, towns and cities and above else, reinvigorate the leadership model. Our 11 councils have a key role in the localism agenda and the Executive needs to devolve regeneration and other powers to them so they can play a fuller role in the recovery process.
We need to move beyond focusing on the economic problems of Covid-19 and start to focus on the solutions and ask ourselves - what does success look like for the post pandemic high street? Undeniably we need to further develop the concept of the experience economy in 21st century towns and cities as we build back better. While it will get worse before it gets better for our high streets, the important thing to remember is that it will get better and this is what government and business need to plan for.
In conclusion, the post Covid-19 economy must be an environment where business can thrive and grow which means investing in our infrastructure, developing skills and increasing our productivity. Our Top 100 must be the thought leaders shaping this bold new future and define the new normal for economy and society in Northern Ireland.
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