Time for reboot of economic policy in Northern Ireland

Glyn Roberts

IT'S frankly hard to believe that we are fast approaching 600 days without a working government in Northern Ireland. And while this is not ‘officially' a new Guinness world record, it does our international reputation no favours at all.

In those many months, the world and economic policy has moved on. That's why we need to see a new Programme for Government with radical changes made to economic policy to ensure we get sustainable growth and stronger productivity levels as we fast approach Brexit.

In the last few months, Retail NI has met with the Prime Minister, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP, where we put forward the case that economic policy in Northern Ireland now needs to be rebooted, with a stronger focus on reforming business rates, infrastructure investment, skills and urban regeneration.

In our retail sector, we are experiencing a ‘reboot' of our own, which is clearly not all good. Looking at the big names such as Mothercare, Poundworld and Carpetright and many others that have closed their doors, you would be forgiven for thinking that we are seeing the death of the high street.

However, rather than its demise, we are actually seeing its restructuring, and like many such processes, there are always casualties. To survive and thrive in retail, it is a constant process of change and innovation.

With Mike Ashley buying House of Fraser he faces exactly this challenge of ‘rebooting' a 169-year-old department store, making it relevant in an increasingly online retail world. Had the House of Fraser in Belfast closed it would have had a devastating impact, not just on Victoria Square but the city centre as a whole.

There is a lot a Stormont government could do in securing the future of our town and city centres. Fixing our broken and antiquated system of business rates is vital.

Whilst still supportive of devolving corporation tax, reforming business rates is now a much higher priority for Retail NI members and needs to be addressed by an incoming Executive.

The 'Rethinking Business Rates' proposals put forward by the last finance minister, which was based on proposals put forward by Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster and supported by over 30 business groups, need to be top priority.

With both Belfast and Derry pushing for City Deals, it's crucial we do not forget the importance of rural towns getting a fair deal from government too.

Investing in our rural towns should be on the list of key infrastructure projects, alongside the A5, A6, York Street Interchange and the Belfast Transport Hub.

We could also include, as part of a City Deal, new Enterprise Zones in Belfast and Derry city centres, similar to the successful Cardiff Central model.

Cardiff has undergone an impressive physical transformation and spectacular economic growth over the last 10 years to become one of the fastest growing economies in the UK and has the highest growth in private sector employment over the last 10 years of all UK Core Cities.

Cardiff City Centre Enterprise Zone has also generated huge footfall for its retail and hospitality sectors and has had a very significant impact in reducing dereliction and shop vacancies.

We cannot continue any further with no government, emergency budgets and a ‘care and maintenance' administration. Vital decisions need to be made.

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI.

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