'Shopping centres' will open despite blurred lines on legislation

Victoria Square in Belfast plans to reopen on Friday. Photo: Mal McCann
Gary McDonald Business Editor

WHAT'S the difference between a shopping centre and a retail destination under Northern Ireland's latest Covid legislation?

Very little it seems . . .

And the lines are so blurred that the likes of Belfast's Victoria Square, Junction in Antrim and The Boulevard in Banbridge are among those pressing ahead with imminent reopenings.

That's despite Economy Minister Diane Dodds - who announced on Monday that all non-essential retailers can reopen from this Friday - specifically saying that the Executive “has yet to decide” when shopping centres can welcome back customers.

The generic description of a shopping centre is a group of shops with a common area for cars to park, often under a roof, and where access is controlled by doors or gates (ie access is denied outside normal trading hours).

Yet within hours of Mrs Dodds' statement, Victoria Square was in contact with its tenants.

Victoria Square. Photo: Mal McCann

In an email, management said: “We're delighted that, in line with Assembly government guidelines, we will reopen on Friday June 12 at 9.30am. We are excited to see you all trading again.”

However, one Victoria Square tenant said: “That certainly wasn't my reading of the statement, and we won't be opening.”

Even the NI Retail Consortium, in a statement welcoming the minister's move on shops, cautioned: “We also look forward to the reopening of shopping centres when it is safe to do so.”

Yesterday the Department for the Economy was unable to specifically clarify the designation of a shopping centre.

In a statement it said: “While the term shopping centre is not defined specifically within the regulations, paragraph 46 (3) of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No.5) Regulations Northern Ireland 2020 clearly sets out the types of premises which would include those in shopping centres.”

The relevant section refers to “retailers situated in premises with direct street access or in a retail park or which are not themselves enclosed or substantially enclosed within other premises.”

Yesterday a spokesman for Victoria Square confirmed: “We have taken this decision as an open street scape scheme to work with our tenants who are now in a position to open in line with government guidelines.

Victoria Square. Photo: Mal McCann

“The health and safety of customers and our employees continues to be our priority and we will be introducing a number of measures including hand sanitising stations, a one way system and signage to encourage social distancing.”

Meanwhile Alastair Coulson, managing director at Lotus Property, said: “In line with guidance from the NI Executive, stores that fit the reopening criteria set out on June 4 were able to open at both The Junction and The Boulevard from Monday June 8.

“On the back of Minister Dodds’ latest announcement, we expect other retailers will follow suit and open, but it is at the discretion of the individual retail brands as to whether they open on June 15 or later.”

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