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Editor's Viewpoint

High streets need the Executive's help, but work must be sharp, focused and short-lived

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Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

The severe challenges facing Northern Ireland's city and town centres have been well known for some years, but the problems have reached a new level of severity thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This newspaper recently reported that 40% of the non-domestic properties in Northern Ireland - mainly shops and offices - are lying empty. Inevitably, a substantial proportion of them will be in town and city centres.

Today there are fears over how businesses like Pizza Express, DW Sports, Curry's PC World and travel agents Hays will operate here in future. Easons has already shut its Northern Ireland stores.

The news comes as economists say it could take up to a decade for the jobs market to recover from the impact of the pandemic. Some weeks ago another economic review said the province would be fortunate to keep unemployment below 100,000 by Christmas - this from a position of a record low before coronavirus struck.

With 240,000 people currently on furlough, there are bound to be more redundancies announced when the job retention measure is wound up at the end of October.

Little wonder then that former Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, now head of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, has called for his former Executive colleagues to set up a taskforce to come up with plans to rejuvenate town and city centres.

Such intervention is needed urgently. Taskforces have a habit of quickly running out of steam as various vested interests seek to protect their operations, even at the expense of others or the overall project.

For that reason, the taskforce's work must be as sharp, focused and as short-lived as possible, so that work can begin to mitigate the challenges that lie ahead.

The Executive should heed Mr Hamilton's plea. It has done an admirable job in balancing public health and economic welfare, but that balancing act has become more difficult as more and more business sectors open up.

Public health must remain the priority, but an economic recovery is also vital. We cannot win the battle to save as many lives as possible but lose the fight to keep alive what is always an economy with underlying problems.

The Executive may need to go cap in hand to the Treasury for funding. Our politicians can point out to Westminster that the Government is keen to invest in its newly won north of England constituencies. We deserve no less aid.

Belfast Telegraph