LARNE traders have given their views on how best to improve the performance of struggling high streets across Northern Ireland.
A special task force of senior officials from the Department for Social Development visited the town last Wednesday to gauge opinion from the local business community. A number of towns are to be visited as part of the initiative and the views and recommendations of traders will be reported directly back to Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.
About 20 retailers gathered at LEDCOM on Bank Road to make their voices heard on a range of issues.
Chairman of Larne Traders Forum, John Shannon was in attendance at the meeting and described it as “very productive and positive”.
“We were pleased with the turnout and traders were grateful for the opportunity to get across their suggestions on how our town centre can be improved,” he added.
“A number of issues were discussed, including that of car parking charges, which was a major concern for many retailers who view it as a tax on the high street and would like to see it abolished. That is not likely to happen as the Government needs to make money somehow, but many local retailers feel that on-street parking charges creates unfair competition, as people can go to big shopping centres like the Abbeycentre and park for free.”
Another issue raised at the meeting was that of joined-up Government, with some traders suggesting that a Minister should be appointed to focus solely on town centres.
Traders also discussed planning policy and felt that the location of large supermarkets should be more sympathetic to town centre traders.
Mr Shannon added: “When Asda came to Redlands in Larne, we fought against the location of the store and felt it should have been sited closer to the town centre. Our opinion has not changed and the issue of planning policy is as important as ever when it comes to saving our town centres.
“A good example would be if a big supermarket chain was to move into the old Woodsides building in Larne; it would draw more shoppers into the town centre and benefit everyone.”
Traders also felt that something had to be done to stimulate the night time economy in Larne. “When 5.30pm comes, the shutters come down in Larne and the town just dies. There is very little entertainment for young people in the town at night and that really needs to be addressed,” Mr Shannon said.
And it was claimed that the 20 per cent VAT rate was causing considerable damage to the local hospitality industry.
“This is really an issue for Westminster to deal with, but the DSD officials took note of it and said they would pass on the concerns of traders.
“I think this meeting shows that the Executive is taking the issue of helping high street retailers in NI quite seriously. Anything that gives our town centre a boost is to be welcomed and we now eagerly await the report that will come out of this consultation,” Mr Shannon concluded.