The DUP motion by Larne Lough Councillor Gregg McKeen called for the council to “consider introducing rate-free town centre schemes to help and encourage small businesses to recover from the pandemic and those eager to bring business to the area”.
However, he acknowledged that the local authority does “not have the power to declare the town centre rate-free but needs to help moving forward”.
Cllr McKeen said: “I am seeking to raise awareness and highlight the difficulties that our retail and small business sector has faced and still expect to have to overcome in the coming months as we start to emerge from the current pandemic situation.
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“In our three towns, we have a healthy retail sector and a large percentage of independent retailers who have suffered greatly throughout the last year through restrictions and lockdowns.
“We have seen people having to turn to online methods of shopping at the detriment of our town centre businesses. We now as a council need to try and help and support this sector in whatever way we can.
“I understand that we do not have the power at our fingertips to declare our town centres rate free, but we need to consider all options and whatever we can do to support the small business sector who are the life blood of our Borough’s economy.
“We need to consider schemes like those that other councils in England offer to support small business in town centres, for example South Northants Council and many others, were various schemes and incentives are offered to encourage business within the town centres.
These include rates relief of 50 per cent on properties with a rateable value of less than £51,000 that are used for shops, restaurants and cafes until April 2021.
Cllr McKeen has urged the councll to engage with the ministers for Finance and the Economy to explore options on how the local authority can “make a difference for our struggling retails sector to making a real difference”.
“We will also need to look at our town centres moving forward and terms of planning and town centre boundaries, we need to look at the nature and type of space required.
“The diversification of retail space will have to be considered on how we can bring more people into our town centres, i.e. bringing libraries, health centres and other activities not associated with a retail centre to bring people into our town centres.”
However, approximately £1m remains unspent by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to aid Covid recovery which must be commenced by March 31.
A sum totalling £1.4m has been received from the Northern Ireland Executive departments – £881,000, from the Department for Communities, £375,000, from Department for Infrastructure and £156,000 from Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
To date, 198 businesses have received a “letter of offer” for funds totalling almost £300,000 and applications for a third phase which saw almost £140,000 up for grabs has just closed.
This funding is aimed at revitalising town centres to “increase footfall and repurpose vacant and under-utilised spaces” led by the Town Centre Recovery Group.
Meanwhile, Retail NI says that it supports a rates holiday for a further six months from April for “struggling small traders” as part of a five-step recovery plan.
Retail NI is also seeking the immediate establishment by the Executive of a high street taskforce as well as a financial support scheme for independent food fetailers who have lost trade during the pandemic and the restoration of a “click and collect” service on an appointment basis.
Retail NI Chef Executive Glyn Roberts said: “The Executive needs to step up and provide further support to independent retailers if they are to stand any chance of survival.
“Retail NI calls upon the Executive to include essential independent food retailers, who have lost trade and footfall, in the Financial Support Scheme. Many of these businesses are trying to trade in town and city centres which are virtual ghost towns, with most of their neighbouring businesses closed
“If the Executive is serious about supporting small businesses, then it needs to give these local independent retailers a lifeline by immediately permitting them to operate a click and collect service on a strict appointment only basis, which would be subject to strict inspection”
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter
Click here to read: Larne residents’ views on shaping town centre ‘important’, says council
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