Belfast Telegraph

Editor's viewpoint: Action vital to help firms after city blaze

Editor's Viewpoint

The fire which burned out the Primark store in Belfast city centre was a catastrophe for the company, but it was also calamitous for other nearby businesses. The news that those businesses may have to remain shut for four months while the damage to the former Bank Buildings is assessed and its future determined is a huge body blow to them in the run-up to one of the busiest trading periods of the year.

It is ironic that a city which refused to bow the knee to terrorism during the IRA's bombing campaign over more than two decades, defiantly putting up business as usual signs where possible after every attack, should now find itself in a state of semi-paralysis over what to do in response to this fire.

Quite rightly, a cordon remains in place around the fire ravaged building, which affects 14 other businesses ranging from little independent shops and multi-national retailers to franchise holders and popular food outlets.

These premises make up the sort of eclectic mix of retailers which make a city centre vibrant, but this cordon has effectively cut the city centre into two parts - north of the former Primark and south of it. It is now more difficult to cross from one sector to the other and that affects the trade of premises on the fringe of the cordon which are still open for business.

While the larger retailers can withstand short term closure more easily than the independent businesses, the security of jobs in many of those premises within the cordon remains problematic.

Belfast City Council, to its credit, has been at the forefront of attempts to find a workable solution for the plight that these businesses unwittingly find themselves in. But, as one business figure said, there has been a lot of talk but few practical solutions.

Now is the time for Belfast to rediscover its spirit in the face of adversity and come up with pragmatic proposals such as rates relief, the bringing back into use of vacant premises on at least a temporary basis and offering them at sensible rents to the affected businesses.

Surely a task force involving the council, Chamber of Commerce, appropriate government departments such as Land and Property Services and affected shop owners can find a way forward. For it should be remembered that a blighted city centre could affect a much wider circle of businesses than those directly impacted by the Primark fire.

Belfast Telegraph

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