Glyn Roberts: Reopening our high streets needs better co-ordination

SHOPPING AND WORKING: Retail NI is concerned that not enough is being done to prepare high streets for a safe reopening later this month. Picture: Hugh Russell
Glyn Roberts

AT long last we have the reopening dates for our non-essential retail, close contact services and hospitality sector.

We now need to focus on ensuring that the reopening of our high streets later this month is done is a safe and coordinated manner, with a strong partnership approach between industry, the Executive and our eleven local councils.

Retail NI is concerned that not enough is being done to prepare our high streets for the safe reopening now that we have the green light.

It was very clear in the last brief reopening in December that the rollout of covid marshals/ambassadors and public hand sanitisers was patchy and in many high streets, non-existent. It varied hugely across the 11 council areas and it was apparent that the coordination across the Executive and councils was not adequate.

We want to see the Executive produce a regional framework outlining the role and responsibilities of the covid marshals, potentially centrally sourcing the public hand sanitisers and drawing up clear guidance for the business compliance signage.

All of this would provide reassurance to shoppers that our high streets are safe to return to and will reduce the transmission of the virus.

This ‘reopening’ must be a proper partnership of the Executive, councils and business to ensure that we have a planned, and above all else, safe process.

Retailers have already invested more than £60 million to keep their stores safe for shoppers and staff and are absolutely committed to continuing to play their part as the wider restrictions begin to relax.

We also need to focus on a plan to get people safely back to their offices and workplaces at an appropriate time.

There is no doubt that home-working might well continue to be an option for many employers, but many workers want the social interaction that goes with the office and of course these workers play a huge role in the footfall and spending in our town and city centres.

The welcome news from Finance Minister Conor Murphy of plans for a number of civil service hubs, will be a boost to local towns and promote regional economic balance.

It is vitally important that the location of these hubs is done on a strictly town centre first basis for maximum benefit for our retail and hospitality sectors.

Now we have the reopening dates, we need to see a date for the introduction of the proposed High Street Voucher Scheme and with a likely increase in staycations, July will be an ideal time to roll this out.

We need to be very clear that these vouchers need to be directed towards independent retailers and local hospitality firms and not large multiple supermarkets which have done well during the pandemic.

While the new high streets taskforce is rightly focusing on the medium to long-term policy challenges, we need a short-term ‘reopening’ group, comprising the Executive, councils and business representatives to co-ordinate all of this over the next few months.

Let’s not forget that the virus is still out there and we need to ensure we do all of this in safe and timely manner while we complete the vaccination process and begin to chart a post-pandemic economic and wellbeing recovery.

We have much to do.

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI

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