NI Secretary of State Karen Bradley has been warned that Belfast city centre faces long-term consequences to its survival without meaningful help in the wake of the Primark fire.
Ms Bradley visited the scene of the Bank Buildings blaze on Wednesday and met impacted traders, Primark staff and shop workers’ union USDAW. She also saw for herself the cordon closing a major junction in the heart of the city’s retail area and met representatives of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, as well as other first responders.
She also met business leaders representing the traders, Rajesh Rana, president of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster and Glyn Roberts of Retail NI to discuss Government action to support those affected.
In a joint statement later after a “useful” meeting, the three organisations said they had made it clear that immediate action from all levels of Government was needed to help people move forward in an already testing retail environment .
“This could seriously undermine the commercial viability of the city for the foreseeable future and put thousands of jobs and dozens of businesses at risk unless we put in place really innovative and long term measures now.”
“We need to see a mixture of short term support for business to get up and running again, a major focus on plans for the Christmas period and access to the city as well as a long-term investment recovery package to revitalise the city centre and its attractiveness and draw to consumers.
“High streets were already struggling and both sales and footfall have been hit very badly by this fire.”
Speaking after the visit, Ms Bradley said: “It was an honour to meet some of the brave firefighters, who worked so hard to contain the blaze and ensured that there was no further risk to life or other properties. It was humbling to witness first-hand the devastation this fire caused, and also hear from the local businesses both inside and outside the cordon.”
On the issues facing traders, she said it was vital that the city centre returned to full operation as quickly as possible, with all businesses back up and running.
“I listened to the concerns of those affected, including if the absence of an Executive is causing a delay in releasing funding and made a firm commitment to work with all the appropriate local agencies on solutions to the issues raised.”
Belfast City Council has this week installed information boards and a guide to highlight the stores unaffected by the fire and help guide people around the cordon to them.
However, the three men said longer term action was also needed to accelerate growth and help those businesses thrive into the longer-term.
“We need to look at everything from new attractions, markets, events, regeneration, transport, the evening economy and the use of vacant premises.”
“A financial support package with input from Primark, the Council, NI Departments and HM Treasury is urgently needed”