Number of empty units increases

THERE are more than 400 industrial units lying empty across the district as the economic crisis takes its toll - but the council will invest thousands of pounds into the four main towns in a bid to regenerate the area.

The number of empty units, from retail to warehouses and banks to post offices, has increased by 6.5 per cent in the past two years, bringing the total to 408 as of March this year.

The figures, released after a question to the Finance Minister in Stormont, also revealed that neighbouring areas Armagh and Craigavon have both seen the number of unoccupied units decrease in the past two years.

But Banbridge District Council has said it is determined to tackle the problem of vacant properties by spending £785,000 - the majority of which is coming from central Government - on regeneration schemes for Banbridge, Dromore, Rathfriland and Gilford.

Mystery shopper and television personality Mary Portas recently made a recommendation to the Northern Ireland Executive that empty units should be occupied by attractive shop fronts at the very least, or even so-called pop-up shops which make their home in a unit for a short period of time, avoiding long-term high rents.

While the council said they cannot actively draw in tenants for pop-up shops, as the units are under private ownership by business people and developers, they added that they will strongly encourage and support those who decide to try it out.

Councillor Brendan Curran, who last week accused Invest NI of neglecting the district by failing to buy up industrial land and bring in investors, said the number of empty units is worrying.

“This would definitely be a cause for concern but there is very little the council can do as the properties have been bought up by developers who are then leaving them empty,” he said.

“Once a place looks run down it becomes run down.”Included in the council’s plans for regeneration in the year ahead are schemes in Rathfriland Street in Banbridge and Market Square in Dromore.

The traditionally congested Rathfriland Street will benefit from a £450,000 environmental improvement scheme featuring new footpaths, parking bays and street lighting. The council aims to bring it to the standard of nearby Solitude Park and Church Square.

In Dromore the focus will be on the improvement of derelict buildings and window displays. The council well make grants available to those who choose to improve their shop fronts and Market Square will see one of its derelict sites transformed into a garden.

Gilford’s shop front improvement scheme is already underway with grants of up to £2,000 available for works including restoring the architectural features of some buildings.

In Rathfriland Market House and Church Square will receive a £165,000 facelift as new plants and seating are installed in a scheme focusing on the town’s heritage as well as attractiveness to tourists.