A fifth of shops in some Northern Ireland town centres are lying empty following the recession, it was revealed.
Carrickfergus and Ballymena in Co Antrim had the highest rate of vacancies after six years of economic slump despite traders faring relatively better than some other parts of the UK, according to an expert report.
Stormont Environment Minister Mark Durkan wants to transform central areas and give them priority when deciding where to site future shops.
Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) Glyn Roberts, who represents small and medium-sized businesses, said: “Northern Ireland has not only the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, but twice the UK national average.”
In Carrickfergus 21% of shops were empty while 20% of premises in Ballymena and Portadown and 19% in Ballymoney, Armagh, Lurgan and Lisburn were affected, according to a report by property experts GL Hearn compiled last year.
Early last year saw sustained loyalist flag protests followed by a tense marching season and a severe threat from dissident republicans to the security forces.
However, the research said many Northern Ireland towns have remained reasonably vital and viable, at least compared to many in other parts of the UK which have fared worse, such as new towns, seaside towns and secondary towns close to regional centres.
Many towns retain a good mix of uses, in particular services within the heart of the centre such as doctors, banks, dentists, solicitors and hairdressers with good parking availability. A visit involves linked trips for shopping, business, leisure, meetings and personal tasks.
The report said: “There appears to be a high level of independent and long-standing family businesses which are respected and trusted, for example for provenance of food or quality of service, ensuring a visit to the town centre remains a pleasant and personal experience, rather than just a functional shopping trip.
“There appears a degree of loyalty to the town centre as being at the heart of the community,” it said.
Some towns were beginning to find niche markets or their own identities as cultural or seaside destinations or gateways to the countryside.
Despite this, Mr Roberts said he was staggered at the number of closed businesses.
“NIIRTA want to see major retailers locate their stores in town centres to enhance them, rather than unsustainable out-of-town locations which destroy jobs and local businesses,” he said.
Mr Durkan told the assembly a proposed new policy on town centres and retailing was part of wider planning reforms.
“Its aim is to support and sustain vibrant town centres across Northern Ireland by adopting a town centre first approach for the location of future retail and other town centre uses,” he said.
The internet and the wider economic slump has reduced shopper numbers across Northern Ireland.
The number of shoppers in Northern Ireland in November was 6% lower than a year ago, recent figures from large traders showed.
Mr Durkan announced a 12-week public consultation on shortening and simplifying wider planning policies.
One Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) would cover building in the countryside, tourism, transport, telecommunications and housing.
Mr Durkan said: “SPPS sets out a new planning policy framework that delivers for business, with timely decisions that encourage investment and facilitate employment whilst protecting our environment, planet and people.
“It provides clarity and certainty for all users of the reformed planning system.”
A spokeswoman for Ballymena Borough Council said its latest figures showed the vacancy rate at just under 18% in October.
“Our vision for the town centre is to build on Ballymena’s reputation as a great place to shop. A number of initiatives are under way, in partnership with independent retailers and other bodies, to continue to improve the overall shopping experience and attract investment through revitalisation, regeneration and shopping events,” she added.
“We had a successful Christmas in the town centre, with retailers reporting strong sales, a great atmosphere and increased footfall.”
Aodhan Connolly, director at the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, supported creating a more streamlined planning process.
“We recognise the important role retail has in enabling a diverse and vibrant town centre as well as the contribution it makes to employment and the local economy and look forward to working closely with the Government on planning policy in Northern Ireland,” he said.