Belfast Telegraph

We all played a part in demise of town centres

By Ed Curran

Too little, too late. The decision of Stormont minister Mark H Durkan (above) to limit planning applications for out-of-town shopping centres was needed 20 years ago.

The failure to protect the heart of our towns and villages dates back to direct rule. The depressing dilapidation on our retailing streets cannot be blamed on the recession alone, nor is it unique to Northern Ireland.

Wherever one goes, the scene is the same as in Northern Ireland. Shuttered shops, signs to let and no takers. We think it's bad here and it is when 30% of shops are vacant – twice the national UK average. Nowhere has more vacant stores, but no-one seems to be able to reverse the trend.

We are all responsible for voting with our feet for the new Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, or whichever hypermarket we choose to frequent in our cars. We are the ones who have forsaken the family grocers and butchers who served us so well for so many decades.

In consequence, the future of many towns and villages is on the line. No terrorist bomb ever inflicted the permanent damage which the changing habits of today's shoppers have achieved.

We are engaged in a form of social suicide. While we lament the loss of urban commercial life, we contribute to its death by supporting suburban supermarkets and shopping online.

The major damage to town centres happened years ago, when so many large hypermarkets were approved on green field sites by planners, who gave little thought to the consequences.

The shopping public was also complicit, voting with its feet to avoid the security barriers, searches and bombings, which made so many town centres inaccessible, inconvenient and dangerous.

The abject failure of local councils to foresee the soaring demand for car-parking contributed to further demise. In a land where weather has such influence on people's habits, the convenience of the out-of-town store with free parking was a no-brainer for most.

The new stores boasted of the employment prospects they offered to the local communities. Today, these supermarkets are Northern Ireland's largest private-sector employers.

Thousands of new jobs have been created, from stocking shelves to manning tills, but who cares about the owners and staff driven out of work in defunct town-centre shops?

Perhaps the change was inevitable and the days were numbered anyway for these people. It could be argued that the economy of scale of bulk-buying by the big supermarket chains, coupled with computerised check-outs, meant the march of technology and time was bound to defeat any nation of small shopkeepers. So, other than unpacking the trolley in the supermarket car-park, where does all this leave us in 2014? There appear to be two schools of thought – one which argues for the regeneration of the commercial hearts of our communities; the other which believes it is simply too late to reverse the trend of the past two decades.

Regeneration requires a huge rethink on the part of the new supercouncils about to be voted into existence in Northern Ireland. The planning laws in town centres need relaxing. The rates on commercial premises are too high and need seriously reviewed.

A whole new approach to parking, both in terms of convenience and cost, is required, with more imaginative schemes to attract people back into the town centres by day as well as by night.

Even then, there is no surety of success in reviving what is slipping away at present. For example, of a dozen towns in England singled out for a special, Government-backed project headed up by the retail consultant Mary Portas, half continued to lose more retail business than they gained.

The second course of action, as some other experts suggest, is to accept that the demise of town centres, as we knew them in the past, cannot be reversed.

Local councils should accept their fate and begin with a clean slate and, presumably, some bulldozers to redevelop commercial streets, perhaps to rehouse people where shops and offices once flourished and to build a new community model for the future.

You take your pick, you make your choice. Either way, the horse – like many erstwhile town-centre shoppers – has long since bolted. The stable door on planning regulations is being shut too late.

It will take much more to save the livelihoods and vibrancy of today's town centres. Their commercial end is nigh unless communities, councils and governments can find answers, not apparent today.

Belfast Telegraph


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