‘Town centre first’ as 21% of shops empty

A proposal to adopt a ‘town centre first’ approach to planning applications has been welcomed in Carrick.

Announced last week as part of Environment Minister Mark H Durkan’s new Single Planning Policy Statement, the move would make it more difficult for developers to gain permission for large out-of-town retail applications.

It follows a report into town centre vacancy rates which found that 21 percent of shop units in Carrickfergus lie empty.

Chair of Carrickfergus Regeneration Partnership Robert Stewart said: “The town centre first approach is something that we have been pushing for years; it was mentioned by NIIRTA [Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association] in a report about three years ago. It’s a good thing as it will punish any developers who go out of town.”

However, the picture may not be as bleak for the borough’s retail heart as the report would suggest, Robert said.

“One thing the report about vacancy rates doesn’t takes into account is that there are some properties that might be run down or derelict and are difficult to re-rent; because we are a medieval town we have a lot of those here,” he added.

“Four new shops opened in North Street in the past few months and Market Place is nearly full, though West Street is one of the worst hit areas as it has three of four derelict buildings.

“We have had £13,000 of funding come through to tidy up the town centre for the Giro d’Italia, to get shop fronts painted and things like that.”

Meanwhile, NIIRTA Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said the announcements was ‘good news’ for local traders and town centres.

“NIIRTA want to see major retailers locate their stores in town centres to enhance them, rather than unsustainable out-of-town locations which destroy jobs and local businesses,” he said.

“NIIRTA has always supported a planning system which can make timely and sustainable decisions which create real jobs.

“The NI Executive now needs to produce a jointed up town centre action plan to address regeneration, rates and car parking.”

The Environment Minister has announced a 12 week public consultation on the Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement, which consolidates over 20 separate planning policy statements into one.

The numerous planning policy statements which currently exist provide the policy on issues such as building in the countryside, tourism, transport, telecommunications and housing.