Radical change required to save the high street

The Primark fire has pushed the issue of town and city regeneration higher up the political agenda. The new Primark store in Commonwealth House on Castle Street. Picture by Mal McCann
Glyn Roberts

It is widely recognised that a time of crisis can produce the best innovation.

While the Primark fire was the worst crisis to hit the city centre since The Troubles, it has pushed the issue of town and city regeneration higher up the political agenda. Who would have thought that £2 million to assist with recovery efforts would have been included in the recent UK Budget and the Chancellor himself visiting the remains of the Bank Buildings.

We also have the huge opportunity for regeneration, presented by the Belfast Regional and Derry and Strabane City Deals. The litmus test for both City Deals is that they deliver real change for town and city centres.

Given all of these developments, Retail NI wanted to set out in detail ideas for creating 21st Century town and city centres and also to kick start a wider debate on the subject. At our recent Regeneration NI conference in partnership with Queen's University, we brought together the UK Minister for High Streets, Jake Berry, Andrew Carter, CEO of the hugely influential Centre for Cities and key players from academia and local government.

What all the contributors to the conference agreed upon was that radical thinking is required to be injected into the policy-making process. Too many of our villages, our towns and our cities are testament to a failure in regeneration policy to date. For the past 15 years, Northern Ireland has not only had the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, but nearly double the UK national average.

Retail NI is clear that the top priority is fixing our broken and antiquated system of business rates. Reforming business rates is now a much higher priority than ever before for Retail NI members and needs to be addressed by an incoming Executive.

The Rethinking Business Rates proposals presented by the last finance minister, which were based on ideas put forward by Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster, need to be a top priority.

The recent UK Budget announced that English independent retailers would be receiving a rate reduction of one third, with our members in Northern Ireland receiving absolutely nothing. Retail NI members deserve the same as their English counterparts.

We fully support the call of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) for councils to gain additional powers covering regeneration, City and Growth Deals, all car parking, more economic development powers and resources, neighbourhood services, winter maintenance, emergency planning and local roads maintenance.

A Northern Ireland Towns and Cities Partnership should be established to manage and coordinate town centre regeneration policy, made up of representatives from the Departments for Finance, Infrastructure, Communities, Economy, the eleven local councils and key business organisations.

Town centre/high street plans must encompass an eco-system approach to town centre regeneration, incorporating health, housing, education, arts, entertainment, business/ office space, manufacturing and leisure, whilst developing day-time, evening and night-time cultures where shops are just a part of the total plan.

An incoming Executive should also establish a Northern Ireland Future High Streets Fund, which local councils could access. We believe that this fund must be substantial and open on a multi-year basis. It will inevitably run side-by-side with a number of high-profile private sector regeneration projects and should be transformational in nature.

These are just some of the ideas in our Regeneration NI report that we hope to present to every council in Northern Ireland; we also want to engage with all the political parties ahead of next year's council elections.

The future model for town and city centres will be very different from before. If we are to save the high street, radical change is needed.

:: Glyn Roberts is the chief executive of Retail NI

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