Belfast Telegraph

Glyn Roberts: Why it's time to put the Primark fire behind us

With the right Government support, new strategy and correct partnership model, Belfast can be in the Top 10 retail destinations in the UK and Ireland

The fire at Bank Buildings
The fire at Bank Buildings
An artist’s impression of the Tribeca Belfast proposal

By Glyn Roberts

It is hard to believe that this time last year, we witnessed one of Belfast's most iconic buildings reduced to a blackened ruin and the collective outpouring of grief from shoppers and city centre workers. We also saw local traders who put their life and soul into their businesses facing closure and laying off their staff.

If there is one positive from this tragedy it is this: a new, vibrant debate among shoppers, traders and political leaders about what type of Belfast city centre they want to see in the future.

It is not just Belfast that needs to be regenerated. We must regenerate the ways in which we approach and tackle the numerous issues facing the city centre and its arterial routes.

We now need to put this fire behind us and focus on a big, bold and radical plan for a 21st century city centre, which is family-friendly with more independent retailers, a vibrant living community and one that is, above all else, a fun place to visit.

In fact, we actually need to go further and put the Troubles city centre model well and truly behind us and focus on the future.

Consumer behaviour is rapidly changing and people want something different from their high streets. I believe that smaller, more agile and tech-savvy retailers who can adapt to this tidal wave of change will be the ones who will claim the future in Belfast.

Our high street is not dying; it is, instead, going through a reconstruction process, which will result in a very different retail sector.

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For Retail NI members, it is not in any way about managing decline; it is, instead, about managing the future. That future will no doubt be the blurring of lines between retail and hospitality, with our two sectors moving ever-closer to create a very different experience for the consumer.

I am a huge fan of the internationally respected retail futurist Howard Saunders. He is a no-nonsense guy, who says it as it is. He summed up what 21st century city centres should be: "We need to get over this current financial hurdle and encourage our towns to be communities again, with buskers and tastings and fairs and all the weird and wonderful things us humans get up to when we're not at work."

And he goes further: "Retail and hospitality are the same thing now. It doesn't matter whether you're a market trader, or a high street chain; your job is to make your customer feel important, listened to and cared for. In short, you must put them at the centre of the universe."

What does that change look like? Firstly, we need to make our city centre the natural location of choice for all types of business and not just retail and hospitality. This will develop footfall, increased spending and city centre living.

A new city centre strategy must encompass an eco-system approach to regeneration, incorporating health, housing, education, the arts, entertainment, business/office space, manufacturing and leisure, while developing daytime, evening and night-time cultures, where shops are just a part of the total plan.

Why not take the example of Cardiff, which located an Enterprise Zone in its city centre and attracted a legion of new tech businesses, turbocharging its economy and pushing it up the list of successful UK cities. Could we locate an Enterprise Zone in the new Sirocco site, for example?

As the respected think-tank Centre for Cities pointed out, city centres perform a number of different functions; the ongoing debate around our high streets has tended to cast city centres purely as places of retail.

By extension, the high-profile troubles surrounding big name high street brands have often translated into a belief that not only high streets are "dying", but city centres, too.

What gets overlooked is that, in some places, such as Manchester and Leeds, city centres are thriving, driven by the investment of knowledge-based industries, such as marketing, finance and law.

While successful cities typically feature fewer shops, the well-paid jobs they offer and the increased footfall in their city centres create a consumer market for retailers, restaurants, bars and other leisure activities.

Belfast needs to create the conditions so that more independent retailers can locate in the city centre to offer something different and distinctive to consumers.

Retail NI is actively engaging with the developers of Tribeca, Sirocco and other new city centre investors to ensure that sustainable locations for new independent retailers are included in their planning applications.

One barrier to that is our broken and antiquated system of business rates, which are high in Belfast city centre.

It is a scandal that Northern Ireland has the highest business rates in the UK, which is a huge burden on our members and our colleagues in the hospitality sector.

It is very welcome that the Department of Finance has already begun a comprehensive review of rating policy with a view to providing options for an incoming finance minister.

It is welcome news that Belfast City Council has set an ambitious target for 66,000 more people to live in the city centre by 2035.

Successful cities across the world have core high-density urban living, with people walking, or cycling, to work.

This shouldn't just mean single people living in lots of high-rise apartments, but also families living in our city centre.

Finally, most important of all is that Belfast city centre needs to be an open and inclusive place, where all communities can continue to work, live and socialise.

Retail NI is ambitious for Belfast and we believe with the right support from Government, a bold new strategy and the correct partnership model, Belfast could be in the Top 10 retail destinations in the UK and Ireland.

Let's do it.

Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI

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