£100m cost to Primark and businesses in wake of 2018 Belfast store fire
The Primark inferno is estimated to have cost the company and Belfast city centre businesses nearly £100m, it can be revealed.
The figure, provided by two top economists, emerged ahead of the first anniversary of the blaze this week.
The fire at the historic Bank Buildings on Royal Avenue, which housed Primark's flagship Belfast store, started on August 28 and burned for three days.
Dr Esmond Birnie and John Simpson assessed the financial impact of the inferno as part of a special Belfast Telegraph report.
Dr Birnie calculated that over £20m was lost to the city centre economy since the fire ripped through the heart of Belfast's main shopping street, while Mr Simpson said he believes that Primark themselves have been hit by £75m in lost revenue and rebuilding spend.
The shocking cost of the fire comes just days after Primark submitted a planning application to begin restoration work on its damaged flagship store.
Its proposals include reinstating the upper floor structures from Bank Street, Royal Avenue and Castle Street facades, and the 1970s wall on Bank Street.
The discount retailer is also asking for permission to add a cafe. It is hoped the proposed works will restore the gutted building to its former glory and result in a considerably larger store than the one currently open in Castle Street.
Dr Birnie's assessment of the impact on the local economy is based on a reduction in spending and employment, as well as money that has to be spent on the repair of buildings adjacent to the 234-year-old landmark.
It refers to the period between August 2018 and August 2019, compared to the previous 12 months of trading.
The total reduction in spending, as calculated by the Ulster University economist, is "mainly in shops but also including the leisure and hospitality sectors".
He added: "Fewer people are employed in the city centre, hence a decline in wage packets, spending and economic output. Thankfully, it seems the long-term employment effect, e.g. in Primark itself, was relatively small."
Mr Birnie said the damage caused by the fire necessitated various private and public sector expenditure that might otherwise have been used for other things; for example, any spending by Translink to adjust bus routes, the various public realm spends by the council, the demolition of parts of the old Bank Buildings and the spend on putting it back in place.
The £20m loss estimate is a proportion of what would have been spent on retail in the city centre - some £900m - had the fire not happened.
The Braniff Associates consultancy report for Belfast City Council estimated the total spend on retail, both on convenience goods and durables, in 2017 was £1,775m, half of which was spent in the city centre.
Even allowing for a decline of a few percentage points - and many traders are suggesting it is considerably more - the loss figure would be significant.
As for the cost to Primark itself, Mr Simpson said the estimated £75m bill included the cost of putting the blaze out and compensation.
He also indicated that displaced retail spending could top £50m during the 12-month period following the fire.
"The cost of the Primark fire is probably greater to the Primark organisation than it is to the value of business activity in Belfast," Mr Simpson said.
"I'm saying that because a lot of the business that Primark didn't do did go somewhere else and there's also the cost to Primark of having to put up a building and having to compensate themselves for lost turnover." He added: "Primark bore the brunt of the cost - it's probably bigger than the cost to Belfast."
Mr Simpson also gave a devastating assessment of Belfast city centre as being "in decline because we do not have at any level the right vision as to how to keep it alive and functioning".
"At the moment Belfast is commercially giving a signal that the best place to put your retail outlet is in the suburbs," he said.
"Buy your site and buy your space for car parking. Belfast city centre is becoming a forbidden territory for people using their cars to do their shopping. You can shop if you get a spot to park your car and if you do you'll pay through the nose.
"Belfast is trying to encourage people to use public transport - and that needs to be commended - but it does not have to be to the exclusion of those who have cars and want to use them."
Mr Simpson also believes the impact of the fire will be long-term and he outlined some of the winners and losers as a result of the ongoing disruption caused by the city centre blaze.
"It will have shown a number of people what the alternatives are of going shopping elsewhere," he said.
"The closure will have damaged trading. The pattern of retail trade was already shifting and the fire may have given it some encouragement.
"The winners of the fire will be the suburban shopping centres which will have had increased turnover. The losers will be businesses who weren't affected by the fire directly but whose customers were taken away to an outlet elsewhere."