Initiatives such as Spend Local & the High Street Task Force are aiming to shape vibrant & sustainable city, town & village centres, placing retailers back at the heart of Northern Ireland communities, says Economy Minister Gordon Lyons
Our retailers and local high streets are at the heart of cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland. While economic activity was severely dampened by Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions, there are clear signs that the steps taken to re-open our economy have had a positive impact.
This is a critical time for our economy. Getting back to business provides our best opportunity for economic recovery and renewal and it is important that we continue to build on the good progress. Thanks to the interventions put in place by the UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive, we are in a much better place to cement our recovery, which has been kickstarted by my Department’s Economic Recovery Action Plan.
A high-profile initiative stemming from this plan is the High Street Scheme, which has seen nearly 1.4 million people receiving pre-paid Spend Local cards of £100 to spend in local businesses. Once the scheme closes it is expected to inject up to £140m into the local economy and straight into the tills of retailers and business across Northern Ireland.
There is also an added objective to stimulate change within consumer behaviour and encourage people back into our shops and high streets and away from a reliance on online shopping.
With this in mind, the Executive has recognised our town centres and shopping habits are changing. In October, the First and deputy First Minister launched the High Street Task Force call for evidence to help shape the way forward in creating vibrant and sustainable city, town and village centres.
The findings from the call for evidence, together with other data, will inform a draft report and recommendations that will be subject to a full public consultation before a final report is presented for agreement by spring 2022.
Although the business community has come through much in the last few years, I recognise there are still challenges ahead. The focus on climate change presents huge challenges to our agri-food industry.
From farming to packaging to changing consumer demands, our industry is ready to step up to the challenge. We pride ourselves on innovation and this will become ever more important as we embrace new technologies in automation and robotics as well as utilising artificial intelligence and data analytics to make our industry fit for the 21st century.
In addition, my Department is acutely aware of the labour shortages facing a number of sectors. Through its Skills Strategy, ‘Skills for a 10X Economy’, my Department is working to provide skilled individuals of all ages to help fill these gaps in the labour market, with vocational education a key element of the Strategy; both in terms of skills for young people, but also for those who want to reskill or upskill.
I would like to end on a note of thanks to all our retailers, farmers and food producers for their ongoing work in providing safe, nutritious and quality food to feed our families and loved ones.
Northern Ireland food and drink producers continue to be recognised for innovation and quality at this year’s Great Taste awards, UK Quality Food and Drink Awards, Blas na h’Eireann Awards, the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards, Bakery Industry Awards and the Great British Food Awards.
This shows we have a proud heritage of producing fantastic quality food and drink and I believe the industry can look forward to more success with renewed vigour as we work together to successfully deal with any challenges we face.