One in five shop premises in Derry’s city centre is now lying empty, with a stark warning issued that further decline will impact on other sectors.
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) Chief Executive Glyn Roberts made the warning as he outlined his organisation’s opposition to the food store element of a planning application for a large North West One (NW1) development at Crescent Link.
Revised plans for the £45m NW1 project - which includes a major food store, cinema, housing, restaurants, cafes - were drawn up after former Environment Minister Alex Attwood rejected the original proposals in 2012.
The planned development was reduced in size from 80,000 sq ft to 50,000 sq ft and an amended application has been resubmitted.
The developers behind it say they expect 250 construction jobs with 510 jobs created once the scheme is fully up and running,
Speaking before this week’s Derry City Council Planning Committee meeting, Mr Roberts said their members in Derry had “grave concerns” about the application.
“We are very concerned that the city centre of Derry now has a shop vacancy rate of 20%, which puts this city at double the UK average of shop vacancies.
“We believe if this NW1 application is to be granted it will only accelerate that process.
“If it gets to 25%, 30% then it will be very hard to try and reverse that decline. We cannot allow Northern Ireland’s second city to decline that far. It will impact on tourism, bars, restaurants. The arts and culture scene will be affected.”
He added that there was already half a million square feet of existing retail applications granted recently.
SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly said his party had been clear that Derry’s 400-year-old historic Walled heart had to be able to offer visitors something when they came to see it.
He added however that while there was a duty to look after the city centre, the application being discussed was an Article 31 matter and therefore the final decision would not be made by the council.
“We have also had the other side of the argument on this as well and the people presenting the application have made their views known,” Colr. Reilly said.
Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Fleming pointed out that come April next year the new Derry City & Strabane District Council will have new powers, effectively becoming the Planning authority.
He said that while vacancy rates were of great concern, “also of great concern is the this city is one of the highest areas of deprivation so it is a wider situation that where a retail outfit may or may not go.”
Colr. Fleming said people had a right to expect provision of services right across the city.
DUP Councillor Gary Middleton said he and his colleagues had listened to both sides of the argument, and were “on record clearly showing our support for the NW1 project”.
Colr. Middleton said that in doing this they had listened to residents during the NW1 consultation process.
“The significant majority stated their favour and support for this project because that site sitting there is completely derelict and isolated.”
“This is about a mixed use development. We have to get the balance right,” he said, adding that the food store footprint has been reduced in size from the earlier application.