More than 2,000 Derry employees were represented at last night’s unveiling of a five point plan to save the city centre from becoming a retail wasteland.
More than 150 business owners - who stated how many employees they represented - attended the Tower Hotel meeting on Monday night to back the new drive to regenerate trade in the city centre.
Central to the radical plan to transform Derry’s business fortunes is the creation of a city centre enterprise zone to give independent retailers a fighting chance of survival. Should the Executive grant such status, businesses in Derry’s city centre could avail of rates holidays, faster planning decisions and capital allowances to promote new retail and business developments.
Independent retailers say the city centre’s trading future is under serious threat.
There are more than 130 shops vacant in the city centre, there have been 50 closures there in recent times and there are applications for nine out-of-town superstores in the pipeline.
Unveiling the new plan last night, Martin McCrossan of Derry City Centre Traders’ Forum said: “If this situation continues, we believe one in three shops will be empty by the end of this year. Urgent action has to be taken.”
The new five point plan was jointly launched at the Tower Hotel by Derry City Centre Traders’ Forum and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. It was presented to Ilex this morning and will be discussed with Derry City Council this afternoon.
In a joint statement, Glyn Roberts, NIIRTA Chief Executive and Martin McCrossan, Chair of DCCTF, said the plan “sets out a positive agenda for growth”.
“The main point of our plan is the establishment of Northern Ireland’s first Enterprise Zone in Derry city centre. We believe with flexible planning, further rates holidays and capital allowances, we could incentivise the city centre as the right location for retail development and new business opportunities, while respecting the conservation area.”
The plan “clearly complements the One Plan document and could further enhance the potential of next year’s City of Culture programme”, the statement added.
The other four proposals include the creation of a comprehensive retail development strategy for the city centre; the adoption of a ‘town centre first’ planning policy when considering out-of-town retail applications; the launching of a ‘shop independent’ campaign, using the recent Belfast Independent Retail week as template (and increased promotion of the city centre’s retail offer); and the development of a strategy to increase affordable parking facilities and public transport in the city centre.
The joint statement added: “Both our organisations are strong supporters of the opportunities that the City of Culture will bring to the city. But what sort of impression will dozens of shuttered and closed shops and a declining Derry city centre give to the thousands of visiting tourists from all over the world? We need a radical change of direction.”
Last night’s meeting followed the Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s call for the Executive to set up enterprise zones in the North.
“We’ve seen there’s been much more rapid progress in England, Scotland and Wales on enterprise zones and I think some of these ideas could apply to Northern Ireland and I think we should try to use every tool in the box,” he said.