Executive set to discuss reopening of indoor shopping centres

Frasers in Belfast was trading in Victoria Square yesterday. Photo: Hugh Russell
Gary McDonald Business Editor

TODAY'S Stormont Executive meeting is set to examine the prospect of reopening shopping centres in the north as regulations around Covid-19 are further relaxed.

It comes as The Irish News revealed yesterday that, amid confusion as to the exact designation of a shopping centre, the likes of Belfast's Victoria Square, Junction in Antrim and The Boulevard in Banbridge are already planning to welcome back customers.

All non-essential shops have already been given the go ahead to open from Friday, though the move exempted indoor shopping centres.

Yesterday a number of retail groups, including Retail NI, the NI Retail Consortium and Belfast Chamber of Commerce addressed Stormont's economy committee and sought clarity around when shopping centres can reopen.

And the issue is now to be included on the agenda for today's Executive meeting, after which an announcement on possible further relaxations will follow, especially given that the north has now gone four consecutive days without a covid-related death.

Speaking to the economy committee, Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said: “While all of non-essential retail can reopen from this Friday, an exemption still exists for indoor shopping centres, and we would ask that the Executive sets a date for indoor shopping centres to open as soon as possible.

“Many are already open because they are home to essential retailers, with more than 60 per cent of stores in one centre. They are able to maintain a safe environment for staff and customers and should be permitted to open as well.”

Victoria Square. Photo: Mal McCann

Aodhan Connolly, director of NI Retail Consortium, also reiterated calls for an opening date for shopping centres.

He said: "We really do need that final piece of the retail jigsaw to be opened as soon as possible - or at least a date for allowing it to be opening."

He also called for "joined-up approach" to adapt town centres and cities for the aftermath of Covid-19 to prevent "friction" between customers and queuing outside shops and passing pedestrians.

Glyn Roberts of Retail NI also called for a "comprehensive plan" to be developed to ensure retailers, employers and consumers are equipped with the "right health and safety guidance".

He says he has been working with the Department of Communities and other stakeholders on the matter.

“Unless consumers have the confidence to go back to the high street, we’re going to have ongoing problems,” he says.

Mr Roberts also says many members have raised childcare difficulties as a challenge for staff during the reopening process.

Meanwhile retailer JD Sports has confirmed that it will open its high street and open air stores in Northern Ireland from Friday, but at this stage those in shopping centres will remain closed.

The chain's entire 309-strong estate in England will open on Monday, while it will give further updates for Scotland and Wales when lockdown restrictions are eased there.

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