Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council is to form a team of officers and members to look at the problems affecting the retail sector in local towns and villages.
At the local authority’s monthly meeting on August 24, UUP Cllr Paul Michael raised concerns about anchor tenant Dunnes Stores quitting Antrim Castle Mall, and the hardships facing many other retailers across the borough.
He proposed that the council put together a delegation of officers and members, led by the Mayor, to meet with management at the Castle Mall to discuss the situation there. The delegation will also be tasked with assessing the problems affecting the borough’s retail sector in general, and looking at what the council can do to help.
Stressing that “the retail sector needs a push and a lift”, he suggested a five-year plan to look at issues such as the high rates being paid by small businesses.
Cllr Michael’s proposal received widespread cross-party support, with Alliance Cllr Neil Kelly stressing that the council must look at “practical measures” such as the introduction of free town centre car parking to help local retailers.
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) has urged the NI Executive to establish a ‘Northern Ireland Town Team’ to address the growing problem of dereliction and shop vacancies in local town and city centres.
Following a meeting with Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey to discuss the issue, NIIRTA Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said: “With Northern Ireland having not just the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, but nearly 70 per cent higher than the national average, we need a new comprehensive and coordinated approach from the Executive and local councils.
“In our meeting with Minister Storey we outlined our proposal for a Northern Ireland Town Team which would comprise of Executive Departments for Social Development, Environment, Enterprise, Finance and Regional Development. This new forum would also include local councils and representatives from retail and hospitality sectors.
“The NI Town Team could play a major role in coordinating policy across Government with a new joined up approach to support the regeneration of our town and city centres and the growth of our local retail sector.
“Joint action on rates, planning, car parking, infrastructure and regeneration is needed to support 21st century town and city centres.”