Retail NI Says our Town Centres must be at the heart of our community

23 November 2021

Retail NI Says our Town Centres must be at the heart of our community

Belfast City Hall

Retail NI Chief Executive Glyn Roberts writes in todays Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Northern Ireland Companies 2021.  He feels there could be opportunity ahead for retail in 2022.

Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’, wrote Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s. But he could have easily been describing where we are economically and socially in late 2021 as we look at the past twenty months of the pandemic and progress, we have made with the vaccination programme.

 Every single one of the Top 100 Companies will no doubt agree that it is not just a different economy they are trading in, but a different world than we had in 2019. Businesses of all sizes and sectors are facing a perfect storm of challenges from Climate Change, Energy hikes, labour shortages, National Insurance increases, Covid-19 recovery, to instability around the NI Protocol.

I don’t want to use this article to focus on the problems the Top 100 and the wider business community face, but to focus on the solutions.  In fact, Id like to argue that 2022 could be the perfect storm of opportunity for the Northern Ireland economy if we get the right policy framework and support from Government.

Firstly, lets focus on our High Streets. Even before the Pandemic, our retail sector and high streets were going through a process of reconstruction, which led to many big names closing their doors. Covid-19 has accelerated this pace of change and not all of it is bad.

Conrad Digan, an independent consultant at Objectivity, rightly pointed in his report on Retail and the Pandemic that while 6 in 10 of UK households bought Christmas gifts from Amazon. However, we did see customers reconsidering local options with an increasing desire to support local independent retailers we did see customers reconsidering local options with an increasing desire to support local independent retailers.

Consideration was given to which channel worked best and as a result Click and collect, phone and collect, roadside collection, online and social media purchasing grew exponentially.

Digan goes on to say “The independent shopkeeper embraced the new channels despite the challenges caused by the abrupt change. Shopping via social media channels and shopping virtually is a new high street norm. Although the adaptation of new channels fluctuated significantly by sector and amongst individual shopkeepers, there is no doubt that two decades of transformation were crammed into a truly short window”.

With the NI High Street Taskforce recently launching its ‘Call for Evidence’ report we have an opportunity now for a solution-based approach to the challenges facing our High Streets.  Retail NI wants to see a five-year High-Street Reconstruction plan produced so the next Executive and Assembly can hit the ground running tackling these numerous issues.

 This would include significant changes on Planning, Business Rates, Regeneration and Infrastructure investment.  The plan must be agreed across the five main parties and key players in business, trade unions and wider civic society. Clean, green, fun family friendly destinations which are eco systems for lots of different types of business - that's the promised land for our high streets and it is the job of us all to define, in policy terms, how we get there.

Part of the solution lies in fully developing and implementing the concept of ‘localism’ to repurpose our town and city centres as unique hubs at the heart of our community.  As Mary Portas said in her ground-breaking report, we need to reimage them as ‘destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning’

Localism is not just about supporting independent retailers; it is also about empowering people and communities to reshape and repurpose their local villages, towns and cities and above else reinvigorate the leadership model.

Of all the all the Covid-19 business support measures the Executive put in place our members tell us that the Rates Holiday was the most effective and helpful. April 2022 is only a few short months when those rates bills arrive again. We should not forget that our system of business rates is not just fundamentally broken and antiquated, it is the most expensive in the UK by a long way.  It disproportionally impacts on local independent retailers and small businesses.

The Chancellor in his recent Budget statement outlined a 50% rates discount scheme for small traders in England and a rates incentive scheme to encourage businesses to invest and grow. Retail NI has called for this to fully implemented in Northern Ireland as what’s good for independent retailers in England, must be good enough in Northern Ireland. This is more important now that our members are experiencing huge hikes in energy costs, national insurance and still recovering from three lockdowns.

As we make steady progress in lifting the Covid-19 restrictions, one very important last bit of the jigsaw remains to be put in place - a plan to get people safely back to their offices and workplaces at an appropriate time. There is no doubt that homeworking might well continue to be an option for many employers, but many workers want and need the social interaction that goes with the office and of course they play a huge role in the footfall and spending in in our town and city centres.

The welcome news from Finance Minister, Conor Murphy of plans for new civil service hubs, to enable their staff to work closer to home will be a boost to local towns and promote regional economic balance. It is vitally important that the location of these hubs is on a strictly town centre first basis for maximum benefit for our retail and hospitality sectors.

Whilst we righty focus on the economic and physical recovery of our economy, none of this can be effective unless this is done alongside a Wellbeing recovery. Good wellbeing is good business. Supporting colleagues’ wellbeing beyond health and safety concerns not only addresses common staffing issues but creates opportunities and business growth.

A proactive approach to managing wellbeing is good for employees and good business. It reduces staff turnover and associated recruitment and training costs, as well as absence and sick pay and a healthy, engaged workforce is essential to boost our productivity levels.

In conclusion, I believe 2022 can be a new start when we can be ambitious for Northern Ireland to make us the best place in the UK and Ireland to shop, socialise, locate and to start a business.

To be the gateway to the European Union and to be a truly global facing region and an eco-system of innovation. A Northern Ireland, which is an outward looking, confident, tolerant, welcoming, and inclusive region that has something to give to the rest of the world.

let’s get to it.