Posted on Thursday 15 March 2012 by Ulster Business

Has mary got a prayer

DSD minister Nelson McCausland has plans to bring Mary Portas to Northern Ireland to advise him on the regeneration our town centres. But can the Queen of Shops’ recommendations really revitalise our high streets as exciting social hubs for shopping, learning and socialising? Lucy Gollogly reports

“Many (high streets) are sickly, others are on the critical list and some now are dead,” Mary Portas writes in her government-commissioned report on the state of the high street.

The threat from out-of-town shopping centres and online retailing means the sector is at “crisis point,” the retail guru warns.

In Northern Ireland, things look especially bleak. We have the highest rate of vacant town centre shops in the UK, according to a recent survey. In February, the British Retail Consortium reported that 14% of shops in our high streets and shopping centres are empty, compared to the UK average of 11%. Another survey carried out last summer suggested Portadown was worst off, with 21% of commercial properties lying empty. It was closely followed by Bangor, Antrim and Belfast.

The Coalition Government has promised to formally respond to the Portas Report later in the spring. In the meantime, local partnerships have been invited to compete for the chance to become one of 12 ‘Portas Pilots’ and share a £1m fund to revitalise their high streets.

Here, the Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland is setting up a taskforce of senior officials to tackle declining high streets. An action plan is due out in April, with Mary Portas advising on its content.

So what remedy does Ms Portas have for the malaise affecting our towns and cities?

The retail expert and television presenter says high streets must adapt or die, and makes 28 formal recommendations. In her wide ranging report she suggests everything from free car parking to encouraging bingo halls in order to foster community spirit. One of her key suggestions is the establishment of ‘town teams’ to manage high streets and develop businesses.

Ms Portas is also in favour of allowing so-called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to take on more responsibilities and powers and become ‘Super-BIDs’. The BID system, which involves businesses paying an additional levy on their rates to fund improvements, has been in place in Britain for some time. A public consultation on the initiative was carried out here last year. She also wants action taken on business rates and supports rates concessions to new local businesses.

She’s critical of the proliferation of big supermarkets and suggests that all new out-of-town developments should require an “exceptional sign off” by the Secretary of State.

The report also recommends establishing a national market day aimed at promoting markets and helping drive traffic towards shops.

That’s one idea that’s gone down well with Brian Jordan, the president of Cookstown Chamber of Commerce and a local estate agent. He says it’s particularly relevant in the Co. Tyrone town, which has a long-established street market. Although it remains popular, Mr Jordan says it could expand and diversify.

“Some would say the market needs a revamp here in Cookstown because with the emergence of big players in food lines, the traditional stall holder selling fruit and veg may not be doing what he used to do,” he says.

“So certainly Cookstown could do with her expertise to help rebrand or refocus the traditional Saturday market.”

The town, which styles itself the Retail Capital of Mid-Ulster, is arguably faring better than many of its rivals. Its main street features a good mix of chain stores and family owned businesses as well as the big supermarkets.

Like everywhere else, business rates are a key issue, but the Chamber of Commerce president says that Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s ‘Tesco tax’ will have little impact. The levy on big stores will fund a 15% rates cut for small businesses, but Mr Jordan says most of the shops in the town fall outside the Net Annual Value threshold of £10,000.

He concurs with Ms Portas’s views on the importance of free car parking and lobbied against the introduction of on-street car parking charges last year. The idea, which was later shelved, would have “played into the hands” of the big stores on the edge of town, which offer all-day free parking, he says.

Mr Jordan is lobbying local MLAs to bring Ms Portas there but he says: “At the end of the day Mary Portas cannot wave a magic wand and suddenly make the economy better.”

Belfast City Centre Manager Andrew Irvine was one of a group of town and city centre managers from across the UK to meet Ms Portas last year. He says he’s supportive of the report’s findings, even if there’s “nothing tremendously new in it for us”. We’re broadly happy with the 28 recommendations – there’s nothing in there that we would disagree with. A lot of it we’re already doing and some of it we know we need to be doing.”

On a brighter note, Mr Irvine says his latest research shows shopper numbers are up in Belfast, even if they’re spending slightly less.

“The research shows we’re doing the right things – we’ve just got to ride the economy through.”

He adds that we already have the ‘town teams’ system in place in many of our towns and cities, although under different guises.

“Ultimately what’s important is that the town team is a genuine partnership between the private sector businesses, the people who live, work, shop and play in the town, and government,” the BCCM boss comments.

He would welcome the introduction of Business Improvement Districts, which he says have been “hugely successful” in Britain.

Mr Irvine believes the current management system in Belfast allows “coattail riders” as some businesses refuse to contribute to funds used for communal improvements such as flower baskets or festive lighting.

“Under BIDs, that stops because if it’s successfully elected, by law, everybody pays. Normally it’s up to 1.5% of their rates that goes into the pot. If we had 1-1.5% of the rateable value of the city to invest, there’s so much more that we could be doing.”

What precisely that would be, Mr Irvine says, would be up to businesses in the city centre to decide, although it might allow more resources to tackle fly posting and increase beat officer patrols, he suggests.

But not everyone is convinced Ms Portas has the answers when it comes to retail in Northern Ireland. Leading retail analyst Donald McFetridge describes the report as “at best mediocre”.

“I think it’s the right diagnosis but there’s no real prescription for it,” he says.
Although he welcomes the setting up of a special taskforce, Mr McFetridge thinks it would be better for Nelson McCausland to use local expertise rather than turn to the high profile Ms Portas. However, the Queen of Shops star and Mr McFetridge are more closely aligned on the issue of business rates.

“The problem that retailers tell me is rates, overheads and all those sorts of things. Central and local government need to do something to make it more viable for independent retailers, who really make our town centres interesting, to continue in business,” he says.

“I was talking to someone who has a forecourt and he said that his electricity bill has gone up by £100 a week. He has the same footfall and he’s selling the same volume of merchandise in his kiosk, without which the petrol business is not viable,” he adds.

“Those sorts of overheads are crippling small, independent retailers.”



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