Northern Ireland is at a good starting point to revitalise its high streets, a Stormont committee has heard.
The Executive Office’s scrutiny committee heard from representatives of the High Street Taskforce, which held its first meeting recently.
It comes as businesses in town and city centres struggle following a series of lockdown restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However calls to support the high street pre-existed the pandemic with changing retail habits.
Phil Prentice of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, who is originally from Northern Ireland, was among those to give evidence to MLAs.
He described towns across the region as having retained local businesses, and not having become “complete clones”.
“I think you have a good starting point, you have a really good underbelly of family-owned businesses, restaurants, pubs – you need to have a vision and you need to be able to enact that,” he added.
Representing local government, Belfast City Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie described a “huge strategic shift in terms of retail” which the pandemic “shone a spotlight on”.
“Without the vibrancy of those high streets we are going to struggle in terms of getting people to live there, getting people to invest there, to create jobs there and get tourists to visit,” she told MLAs.
“There needs to be clear timeframes set for the taskforce to report back and to give an action plan as to what we think now needs to happen.”
As the committee met, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £5.8 billion high street restart fund.
Derek McCallan from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association said £170 million earmarked for Northern Ireland should be distributed through councils.
Colin Neill from Hospitality Ulster said his industry is the “backbone of the economy”, the fourth largest employer in Northern Ireland and is set to be a “key part” of the future of the high street by helping to create “destinations”.
But he expressed concerns about the make-up of the 30-strong taskforce board, warning that decisions “may be difficult”.
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, said most visitors come to explore culture and heritage, and have authentic experiences.
He called for further support for cultural venues to ensure there are good events and market places.
“We need to make our places look distinctive and they need to be rooted in the heritage and the history of the place and people who live about it,” he said.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said villages, towns and cities should be turned into destinations where people want to spend time as well as their money.
He suggested more hospitality and leisure, as well as looking at living over shops.
Glyn Roberts of Retail NI said preparations need to be under way for the reopening of non-essential retail following the latest lockdown, even if specific dates have not been indicated.
He called for a short-term group to be set up to prepare for the reopening of the high street.
In the longer term, he said the “age-old challenges of business rates” must be tackled.
“We need fundamental restructuring of our business rate system, we need tightening up of our planning system, there are still out-of-town retail developments that are being allowed through,” he said.