Executive 'must replicate Future High Streets Fund to save our retailers'

Retail sales collapsed in April as much of the UK's towns and cities, including Belfast, shut up shop
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland must be included in the UK government's £1 billion Future High Streets Fund, a Belfast trade chief is demanding.

The cash pot is helping 100 cities and towns mostly in England to improve transport and access into town centres, convert empty retail units into new homes and workplaces, and invest in vital infrastructure.

But there is no equivalent scheme for towns and cities in Northern Ireland.

And Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Hamilton insists: "If we value the economic, social and cultural role that our city centres and high streets play, then this needs to change."

He was speaking after official figures revealed that April saw record-breaking falls in retail sales across the UK as hundreds of thousands of businesses were forced to shut up shop to help tackle coronavirus.

The total volume of retail sales fell by 18.1 per cent last month compared to the previous months, the Office or National Statistics (ONS) reported. There had already been a drop of 5.2 per cent compared to February.

And it came as it emerged the UK government borrowed £62.1 billion in April, the highest monthly figure on record, and equivalent to its whole borrowing for this year.

On the retailers' woes, clothing sales were the hardest hit, falling by 50.2 per cent compared to March, a month which had itself seen drops of 34.9 per cent from February's figures.

Sales from household goods stores fell 45.4 per cent, on the back of an 8.7 per cent drop from February to March.

But on the flip side, sectors making hay in the current in the current climate were non-store retailing, such as online only and catalogue businesses, and off licences, as people stocked up on home booze to compensate for the pubs being shut.

Mr Hamilton said: “The drop in retail sales across the UK highlights the threat to city centres and high streets posed by Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions.

"Retail has been facing challenges for some time, but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation with a 30 per cent increase in online sales. This all adds up to a worrying period for the retail sector who face a troubling future of these trends continue.

"City centres and high streets are about much more than retail. Shops, along with offices, hospitality and leisure businesses, generate the vibrancy we normally see in Belfast city centre and towns across the region. They are where people come together, and they cannot be allowed to slowly decline.

"Now is the time, as part of its plan for economic recovery, for the Executive to consider replicating the Future High Streets Fund to help breathe new life back into our city centres and high streets.”

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