Glyn Roberts says the bosses of the Top 100 companies can help lead transformation of the economy, including retail
The companies listed in this year’s Top 100 deserve to be congratulated on their achievements and should take time to celebrate rewards that have been reaped through hard work.
That said, they must also continue to press ahead and strive for even greater things in the months and years ahead.
Truth be told, 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?
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 towards the revival and recovery in these difficult and challenging times.
We are not just dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, we are also facing a cost of doing business crisis too.
The Top 100 are facing a perfect storm of challenges from, energy hikes, labour shortages, inflation, National Insurance increases and Covid-19 recovery.
We are not just dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, we are also facing a cost of doing business crisis too
Turning to the challenges facing retail and our high streets, there is no doubt we are not short of strategy and policy.
The Executive’s Investment Strategy, Infrastructure 2050, Economy 10k, UK Governments Levelling Up White Paper and the recently-published Northern Ireland High Street Taskforce report all set out ambitious plans for our town centres.
The question that Retail NI members ask is how we get local, regional and national governments all pushing in the one direction — and, more importantly, how all these policy priorities can be delivered so we can create 21st century high streets.
We also need to ensure they become multi-functional hubs with libraries, community services, police stations, healthcare, leisure, education, open spaces, housing and sports facilities.
Clean, green, fun, family-friendly destinations which are ecosystems for lots of different types of business is the promised land for our high streets and it is the job of us all to define, in policy terms, how we get there.
The Infrastructure 2050 report has summed up very well what needs to be done to create “opportunities to focus on the reuse, repurposing and refurbishment of existing urban buildings instead of new developments”.
It also cites the importance of a strong town centre first approach which places “town centre health at the heart of decision-making processes, driving public sector investment decisions, aligning policies and targeting resources to prioritise the regeneration of town centre sites”.
Retail NI recently launched its New Ambition plan in Omagh which sets out 29 policy priorities for this new Assembly term.
Launching our report in Omagh signals Retail NI’s commitment to campaign for a better deal for our rural towns and villages from government.
A top priority in our report is establishing a Rural Town and Village Infrastructure investment Fund to ensure our small and mid-sized towns are not left behind.
New Ambition has four key sections: improving government, tackling the cost of business crisis, modern infrastructure and better planning, and addressing the climate crisis.
Our New Ambition report outlines the need for urgent action from the next Economy Minister to establish and chair a cost of doing business taskforce to ensure a comprehensive package of measures is produced as soon as possible.
We also want to see the current business rates holiday extended until January 2023 to alleviate some of the high cost of doing business.
A fundamental redesign of the business rates system, based on fairness and affordability is badly needed as is a Green Rates Rebate Scheme to incentivise retailers who invest in energy efficiency and carbon neutral technology.
We now have an opportunity for a co-designed solution-based approach to the challenges facing our local high streets which includes a five-year high-street reconstruction plan (as outlined in the High Street Taskforce report).
With the review of Invest NI ongoing, Retail NI wants to see the Executive create a new Small Business Champion to head a new agency which will focus on micro and small business development and be a ‘one stop shop’ for those seeking to start up on their own.
Our New Ambition report also sets out our vision about empowering people and communities to reshape and repurpose their local villages, towns, and cities and above all else reinvigorate the leadership model.
We aren’t just selling retail, hospitality, or even high streets: we are selling consumers destinations and experiences.
Retail NI also wants to see the prioritising of social purpose in our high streets and the development of the ‘kindness economy’ to support the next generation of passionate independent retailers who will prioritise people and planet and breathe new life into our empty spaces and derelict buildings.
This means developing green quarters in Belfast and in our major local cities and towns.
Athens and Seattle are good examples of successful projects of ‘greening’ high streets. The Executive and councils need a Green High Street strategy which will include providing more tree-lined streets, living walls, urban gardens, walking and cycling options.
The Programme for Government for the next Executive needs to be more than just a deal between five parties.
It should instead include the key partners in the economy, such as business, trade unions, local councils and the voluntary sector. The Top 100 shouldn’t be seen as just consultees but as essential partners in the delivery of prosperity for Northern Ireland.
Our Top 100 must be the thought leaders in driving change and rebuilding and repurposing our economy as we navigate through these difficult times.
Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI