NI High Street task force makes 14 recommendations including learning from Los Angeles and other transformations

Foyle MLA Gary Middleton has welcomed the launch of High Street Task Force report ‘Delivering a 21st Century High Street’ alongside fellow MLA Declan Kearney.

The two Junior Ministers, who are joint chairs of the task force, were presented with the report this week by High Street Task Force.

There are 14 recommendations made to the NI Executive. These include immediate rates relief, supporting increasing city centre living, work focusing on understanding each place and developing bespoke plans; learning from others for example, Los Angeles which launched a programme in 2013, recognising that streets are the city’s largest public asset. This involved substantial investments, partnerships with communities and grants to transform an underutilised asset into vibrant spaces that reflect the unique character of their communities.

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The HSTF has also endorsed the Living High Streets Craft Kit and now recommends that it is rolled out with the necessary support for implementation in each high street, village, town

Junior Minister Declan Kearney; Glyn Roberts, Retail NI Chief Executive and Chair of the High Street Task Force - Influencing Policy and Strategy sub-group; Cathy Reynolds, Director of City Regeneration and Development, Place and Economy Department, Belfast City Council, and representing SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives); Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of NICVA and member of the High Street Task Force, Developing Capacity sub-group; and Junior Minister Gary Middleton. (By Andrew Towe)

and city centre that is prioritised for action by the relevant district council. In each place, the Craft Kit approach will lead to local actions that can be implemented quickly. At the moment, many creative proposals fall because there is no clear route to secure resources.

“The HSTF recommends that a fund is created to support such initiatives. We describe this as an agile or pop-up fund, and we suggest that it is made available for projects that are sponsored by district councils and delivered by a competitive process in which the HSTF has an advisory role,” the report states.

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It also advocates developing and implementing an investment programme for blue-green infrastructure, cleaner and greener public realm and sustainable

transport, and ‘smart high streets’ with universal WiFi access, the Internet of Things, augmented reality and a range of other initiatives which can secure the benefits offered by digital technologies.

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Gary Middleton said: “Our high streets have experienced constant and increasing change, particularly in recent years.

“We want to empower people and communities to reshape and repurpose their local villages, towns and cities, to create a more diverse high street - high streets that are clean, green, family friendly destinations that are welcoming for everyone.

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“I want to thank the High Street Task Force for bringing forward this report which has been developed to prioritise those actions that can drive delivery and build momentum.

“A joined-up and collaborative approach must continue over the coming years to deliver high streets, village, town and city centres that are fit for the 21st century and this report provides the next steps for the new Ministers in the next mandate to take forward work to revitalise our village, town and city centres.”

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Junior Minister Declan Kearney said: “We want to see our cities, towns and villages regain and retain their vibrancy, purpose and sense of place.

“High streets of the future should be safe and attractive gathering points for whole communities, where people can live, work, shop, learn, do business, use public services and enjoy their leisure time.

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“The High Street Task Force report provides a long-term focus on addressing the transformation of our high streets and recognises that there will be a requirement for a number of short, medium and longer-term interventions.

“I want to thank Task Force for their hard work and commitment to date and commend the joint-working and co-design roles played by departments, retail and other business organisations, trade unions, local councils and the community and voluntary sectors.

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“I believe this report and its recommendations can play a vital role in revitalising our high streets.”

Among the members who presented the report were Glyn Roberts, Retail NI; Seamus McAleavey, NICVA; and Cathy Reynolds, SOLACE.

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Glyn Roberts, Retail NI Chief Executive and Chair of the High Street Task Force – Influencing Policy and Strategy sub-group, said: “This report sets out proposals for a five year reconstruction plan for our high streets, reform of our business rates and the need to improve our retail planning policy.

“We hope that an incoming Executive after the election will hit the ground running with this plan and begin the long road of recovery for our high streets.”

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Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of NICVA and member of the High Street Task Force – Developing Capacity sub-group, said: “It is obvious change is happening. We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it has speeded up during the Covid pandemic by necessity. Online commerce is the norm and communities need to re-invent there town centres.

“Only a new vision will work as the past is the past. Communities are the heart of the city, town and villages centres. We can build vibrant high streets; places people want to work in, shop in and enjoy themselves in. It is achievable.”

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Cathy Reynolds, Director of City Regeneration and Development, Place and Economy Department, Belfast City Council, and representing SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives), said: “Our high streets have experienced significant change and challenges over recent years and it is critical that there is a focused effort to address these challenges and build on opportunities to ensure the future sustainability of our towns and cities.

“A long term sustained approach is required to ensure high streets are supported to thrive and most importantly survive.”

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The High Street Task Force report and its recommendations will be subject to consideration by the next Executive who will determine how it can be aligned with the future Programme for Government.

The High Street Task Force (HSTF) has the aim to deliver the following agreed vision: “Sustainable city, town and village centres which are thriving places for people to do business, socialise, shop, be creative and use public services as well as being great places to live.”