Retail has key role in shaping new Programme For Government

Assembly candidates Cllr Carla Lockhart (DUP), Máirtín Ó Muilleoir MLA (Sinn Fein), Cllr Carl McClean (UUP), Cllr Nicola Mallon (SDLP) and Cllr Nuala McAllister (Alliance) with Glyn Roberts
Glyn Roberts

WITH so much focus on the Brexit referendum in June, we shouldn't forget that we also have another vital vote in May to elect a new Assembly.

It's been five years since the last Assembly elections, and last week NIIRTA held an 'Elevator Pitch' to give first-time Assembly candidates from the five main parties an opportunity to sell their economic policy priorities to a business audience.

Up to 40 per cent of the next Assembly could be new faces, and it is clear a generational shift is taking place with our local political parties. It's vital the business community engages with these new political leaders and influences their policy priorities.

Last month NIIRTA was the first business organisation to publish a comprehensive five-year policy plan for all nine new Executive departments with over 97 recommendations. While retail and town centres are central to our report, it is a plan for our economy as a whole.

With the nine new Executive departments coming into effect, it is time for a fresh start. Retail is the largest contributor to our private sector economy but today our members still feel that there are too many barriers to business in place. We are calling for the Executive to take our proposals on board and to work to secure retail's rightful position as a key partner for growth in a new, more efficient private sector led Northern Ireland.

In our Economic Programme for Government we outline detailed proposals for a radical reform of business rates, new enterprise zones, city deals, more BIDs and investment in infrastructure. Action on addressing the high business costs; a coordinated plan to tackle red tape and creating a more vocational and professional education system are all key priorities in our plan.

Last week we saw the closure of Austin's, the oldest independent retailer in the world, and it underlines the need for the Executive to redouble it efforts for a coordinated approach to our town and city centres

In our plan we call upon the new Executive to establish a Northern Ireland Town Team to coordinate town centre regeneration policy. Membership of this would include Departments for Finance, Economy and Infrastructure, the eleven councils and key retail and hospitality organisations.

We need an entirely new approach from Government toward our town and city centres that recognizes their economic potential as locations for all types of businesses and not just retail and hospitality.

Our top priority is the radical reform of business rates and among the ideas we have include:

• Extending the successful small biz and empty premises rates relief scheme,

• A capital allowance rates scheme to allow small traders who invest in their business to write off part of their rates bill,

• A village rates relief scheme to support the vital role retailers play in their community infrastructure,

• Rates revaluations to occur every three years and not 13.

Reforming business rates, skills, infrastructure, tackling red tape and importantly of all how we create the conditions for the next generation of retailers and entrepreneur's.

The business community needs to take this Assembly election seriously and step up their engagement with candidates to ensure the new elected can hit the ground running with a radical pro-business Programme for Government.

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA)

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