Retail rates uncertainty overshadows positive footfall

NIRC director Aodhán ConnollyNIRC director Aodhán Connolly
NIRC director Aodhán Connolly
Northern Ireland continued to buck the UK retail trend in January as footfall in Northern Ireland continued to increase in January, but Brexit and the issue of business rates is causing concern an industry body has claimed.

The 3.9% increase in footfall marks the fourth consecutive month of growth.

It was the highest figure across the UK regions and for the first time in 15 months included shopping centres as well as the high street.

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The town centre vacancy rate for the province was 14%for the month, up from 13.6% om October and above the 9.9% UK average.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the news was welcome but somewhat overshadowed by other events.

“The excellent start to 2019 in footfall continues with a four month run of growth and a rise in eight out of the past 12 months. And while the 3.9% increase beats both the three and 12 month averages retailers are finding it hard to celebrate in the face of so much uncertainty for their industry.

“As well as obvious concerns on Brexit, they also have serious concerns about the outdated business rates system which is unfairly weighted against retailers who pay 24% of business rates despite being only 12% of the economy.

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“We have already seen rises in the district rate from Derry and Strabane Council as well as Belfast City Council, with others sure to follow, and we have no idea yet of when the regional rate for business will be struck.”

That uncertainty and potential risks, he said, made the province a less competitive place to do business.

“We need a quick declaration of the NI regional rate and we need to see progress from the Department of Finance on rates reform immediately.

“This is now mission critical for retailers and one of the reasons our vacancy rate remains 4% above the national average.”

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Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard said: “The good news is that it is defying the UK trend, with January recording a positive result for the fourth consecutive month. And unlike the UK as a whole in January which was typified by a significant rise in the first week and then declines for the remainder of the month, in Northern Ireland footfall rose in the first three weeks which averaged +4.6%, and it was only in the last week that footfall declined by -2.2%.”