Belfast Telegraph

Radical plan to save Northern Ireland high streets from disaster

By Claire McNeilly

A radical Mary Portas-style plan to save Northern Ireland’s town centres has been launched by retailers.

Experts have predicted that 2,000 local shops are facing closure this year —prompting a special summit to try and save the high street.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) yesterday published its report, called Town Centre First, which contains 50 solutions to some of the problems towns are facing.

It calls for a freeze on car parking charges for ten years, as well as the amalgamation of three government departments into a new Department for Strategic Development.

NIIRTA president Paul Stewart said the Town Centre Summit was of particular importance after it emerged there are more vacant properties across the province than in any other UK region.

“With Northern Ireland again scoring the worst in the UK for shop vacancies, our summit is very timely in bringing not only together the three ministries responsible for town centres, but also to launch new ideas on how to reinvent retail for tomorrow's town centres,” said Mr Stewart.

“With some town centres approaching a 50% shop vacancy rate, projected figures of 2,000 local shops closing this year and a staggering two million sq ft of out-of-town superstore development currently being processed by the Department of the Environment’s planning service, we are facing meltdown unless the Executive acts fast.”

NIIRTA boss, Glyn Roberts, who wrote the Town Centre First report, said it was time to look to the future to reinvent retail and reverse the decline.

“It is about change and the building of modern and inclusive town and city centres which have the right mix of independent, niche and multiple retailers,” said Mr Roberts. “It’s about making town centres destinations for shoppers and providing the very best in shopping experiences as well as making them living communities with a strong cafe culture and night-time economy.”

NIIRTA, which represents 1,300 independent retailers, has called for the Department for Social Development (DSD), the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and the Department of the Environment (DoE) to merge into a Department for Strategic Development. It also wants a new Department for the Economy.

It has suggested Intertrade Ireland should establish a cross-border retail forum, and is seeking a third party right of appeal against out-of-town superstore applications and a new Town Centre First planning policy.

Among its other recommendations, it advocates a third extension of the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme to be put in place by 2016, as well as the establishment of Retail Enterprise Zones.

Yesterday's event was the first to bring together all three departments responsible for town centre policy. Amongst those taking part are Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and Environment Minister Alex Attwood.

Mrs Portas was commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron to undertake a report into the future of Britain’s high streets. The subsequent Portas Review was published last December and contains 28 recommendations.

The Proposals

  • A five-year moratorium on any further out-of-town superstore developments.
  • The creation of a Department for the Economy.
  • Reduce VAT to 5%.
  • Northern Ireland should be marketed as a weekend shopping destination.
  • Create more ‘Virtual Window’ schemes to paint and tidy up derelict shops.
  • An emergency 100% first year rates relief for town centres with a 40%+ shop vacancy rate.
  • Introduce car parking charges in out-of-town superstore car parks.
  • Privatisation of Translink.
  • Introduce a ‘timed disc’ system for delivery and service vehicles.

Belfast Telegraph


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