Despair of Belfast traders over 'never-ending' roadworks
Shop owners in east Belfast claim constant roadworks are "killing" their businesses.
A stretch of the Upper Newtownards Road has been the scene of large-scale works by Northern Ireland Water since last June.
Dave Kane (77), who owns a bicycle shop in the area, said it was a threat to his livelihood after nearly 40 years of trading.
"We are struggling with footfall," he explained.
"We have our regular customers who make the trip from all over Northern Ireland, but we're losing the general public coming in and having a look at the bikes."
One lane remains open in both directions and parking spaces are still available, but Mr Kane said daily traffic reports were putting customers off.
"All we hear every morning is: 'There's roadworks in Ballyhackamore, avoid the area'," he said.
"But there's businesses here, we're saying 'come to the area'. There's still facilities and parking spaces."
Mr Kane has contacted Land & Property Services about a possible rates rebate, but his plea was rejected.
"It's just killing the whole area - the coffee shop next door is closed after only being open a year," he added.
"Our shop is taking a hit every quarter and if it keeps going it could cause us to close, it's not good."
Two doors down is health shop Nature's Way, owned by Jacqueline Bell (40).
"It's the parking and deliveries that are the worst for us," she said.
"It's just continual; we had the same issue a few years ago when they were doing the rapid transport scheme.
"It's tough enough to survive as a small business, and it seems they're blocking access to our shops.
"Our footfall's definitely down. I've got people saying they've wanted to go to the shops but had to drive on by."
She agreed that the affected businesses should be helped with their rates bill.
"It's absolutely ridiculous. We're paying about £4,500 in rates for our bins and water, but I don't actually know what else we're getting out of it. It's definitely not for services because people can't get to our shops," she said.
"The cafe next door started at the same time as the roadworks and it just never had a chance."
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said the disruption to traders had been "absolutely horrendous".
"Some of these businesses could go under, so I share that frustration and anger," he said.
"I know the work has to be done but the inconvenience over the past year has been the worst I've experienced in my 25 years as an elected representative.
"I'm enraged about it and Land & Property Services need to do something.
"A lot of retailers will not be able to pay their rates bill and that affects the money coming into Belfast City Council."
NI Water explained that the work is due to end in July and was essential to reduce the risk of flooding from sewers in the east of the city.
As well as running alongside work on the new Belfast Rapid Transit System, progress on the Upper Newtownards Road has been hampered by technical problems.
This forced a change from trenchless tunnelling techniques to traditional open-cut methods.
While acknowledging the frustration the works had caused, it assured traders that "we are doing everything to complete the works as soon as practically possible".
Land & Property Services said there was no rates relief applicable in this situation.
"The hardship relief scheme which provides relief in a temporary crisis caused by exceptional circumstances would not apply in the case of planned public works," it said.
"Land & Property Services does, however, appreciate the difficulties experienced by businesses and would be happy to apply flexibility in terms of payment arrangements to help businesses over a difficult period."