Tumbleweed continues to blow through north's shopping centres and high streets

October saw another decline in the number of people out shopping in Northern Ireland
October saw another decline in the number of people out shopping in Northern Ireland

TUMBLEWEED continues to blow through the north's shopping centres and high streets as retail footfall declined yet again in October.

And with a consultation on the future of rates closing today, it has prompted a renewed call for help to save a sector which is worth hundreds of millions to the region's economy and sustains more than 100,000 jobs.

Latest monthly figures from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Springboard make for more grim reading.

In the four-week period from September 29 to October 26, which should have been busy in the lead-up to Halloween, overall footfall declined by 2.1 per cent.

That was slightly better than the rate seen in September and the three-month average decline of 2.7 per cent, while the 12-month average decline is 1.5 per cent.

Broken down, high street footfall declined by 1.5 per cent, a shallower rate of decline than September, but shopping centre numbers fell back 3.9 per cent, and Northern Ireland was the worst performing of all UK regions.

Worryingly, the vacancy rate increased from 14.1 per cent in July to 14.3 per cent in October.

“There's little to be enthusiastic about in these latest footfall and vacancy statistics,” according to NI Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly.

“We've again seen a decline in footfall which rounds off a six-month streak of falling shopper numbers on our high streets and shopping centres.

“The shop vacancy rate in our town centres is similarly depressing, with a small yet noticeable rise in empty premises.

“And the simple fact is that the cumulative burden on retailers has become too much to bear and retailers of all sizes are feeling the squeeze.”

The rating issue is particularly pointed in Northern Ireland, where the highest level of business rates is ten pence in the pound more expensive than anywhere in Britain.

“The Department of Finance’s consultation on the future of rates closes today, and we are calling for fundamental reform because for our industry in Northern Ireland it is a key priority,” Mr Connolly said

“The retail sector is 12 per cent of the economy in Northern Ireland, yet pays a quarter of all business rates. That is both inequitable and unsustainable.

“Retail’s store footprint in Northern Ireland will contract and the rates regime, if not fixed, will speed up that contraction.

“That’s not just bad for retailers, because less retail means less rates revenue, which in turn means either less income for councils and Stormont departments to spend, or those that are left pay more which will hasten decline further. Business rates need reduced now.”