Our high streets face big decisions so need political leadership

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Last month Northern Ireland’s shops experienced the worst fall in footfall they had seen since 2017.

The drop of 5.3% was also the worst of any part of the UK.

There was an even greater footfall on the high streets, which were down by 6.1% to the end of May, which was also the worst in the UK.

The figures are not entirely bleak: the fall since January is not so severe, only down 0.8%. And the May figure is thought to have been impacted by the bad weather.

But there is no disguising or denying the long-term challenges facing the sector. The growth of the internet has hit physical shops around the affluent parts of the world.

Aodhán Connolly, director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, cites a worrying statistic: that one in six of our shops are lying empty.

There is also a major challenge for policy with regard to rates, and this is political problem, linked to public pressure.

There has been a refusal, for example, to accept water charging, and other constraints on domestic property tax, including a low ceiling on which homes of increased values have to pay more.

There has also been a misguided assumption that very big businesses can take up the slack. They can’t, there aren’t enough of them. It is small or medium sized retail businesses that are being squeezed. Meanwhile, they are struggling to pay a now hefty minimum wage, as well as the Apprenticeship Levy.

Mr Connolly is right to be concerned about the lack of a Stormont to take decisions. But we reach a specific conclusion on that, which is that one party has been allowed to bring down devolution and has set conditions for its return.

This must not be met, as a matter of principle, because it sets the scene for a future collapse. The time is long past when the government should have stepped in with direct rule.