Save our town centres, urges Sam Gardiner

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MARY Portas’s phrase about our dying town centres - “we won’t miss them till they’re gone” - rings true in my ears and, I suspect, in the ears of many people.

It has got to be made easier and cheaper for businesses to occupy the empty retail units which create an air of deepening gloom about many of our town centres.

Government action has, so far, been marginal and lacks the scale and imagination to make serious inroads on this problem.

We need a planning culture, not a reactive culture, at the heart of government. Government lacks imagination. It is far too plodding.

The whole basis of taxing town centre businesses needs to be re-examined. We need to look at shifting away from a rates-based property tax altogether and moving instead to a trading tax on profits.

It is wrong to tax the same asset again and again when what we should be taxing is the economic activity of a business.

I was dismayed recently when the finance minister said if business rates were re-valued downwards, his department would simply increase the rates per pound so that the government would get the same income.

This makes a nonsense of the 2015 revaluation. How many businesses will survive until then anyway?

How many more empty shop fronts does this mean? Government must expect to take a hit if businesses are not making money and not just be able to go on collecting business rates regardless.

We need to look at ending town centre car parking charges as a matter of urgency. Mary Portas identified these in her survey of the High Street as the single biggest disincentive to people shopping in town centres.

Town centres are being asked to compete on an uneven playing field with out-of-town shopping centres where there are no parking charges. Once again, like the rates, parking charges are a convenient cash-cow for government.

In planning terms we must look at merging out-of-town shopping centre proposals with town centre locations.

The Tesco store in Lurgan is a good template for this. It is essentially like a big out-of-town store but it is located near Lurgan town centre.

Why can out-of-town not become in-town? It means looking again at road infrastructures, creating new free parking opportunities and new links between existing out-of-town centres and nearby local towns.

Add to this mix more flexible, competitive lease terms, a five-year rates holiday for new town centre traders, a planned series of festivals, markets, events and “shop local” initiatives for each major town and you begin to get the building blocks of a new manifesto for town centres.

Sam Gardiner is UUP MLA for Upper Bann. These are his views as a constituency MLA, but are not UUP policy.




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