A LURGAN MLA has outlined his plans for town centre recovery.
Ulster Unionist Sam Gardiner said: “We have got to make it easier and cheaper for businesses to occupy empty retail units which create an air of gloom about our town centres. This must include more flexible and competitive leases which must be underwritten by government subsidy, if necessary.
“In addition, the whole basis of taxing town centre businesses needs to be re-evaluated by government. We need to look at shifting away from a rates-based property tax altogether and moving to a trading tax on profits replacing it. Government needs to assess the costs of this change-over and readjusting its commitments to accommodate it. Government must expect to take a hit if businesses are not making money and not just be able to go on collecting business rates regardless. We must face the fact that unless we act decisively now our town centres will die. It is that serious.
“We need to look at ending town centre car parking charges as a matter of urgency. Mary Portas identified these in her survey of the High Street as the single biggest disincentive to people shopping in town centres. Town centres are being asked to compete on an uneven playing field with out of town shopping centres where there are no parking charges.”
Mr Gardiner added: “In planning terms we must look at merging out of town shopping centre proposals with centre locations. The Tesco store in Lurgan is a good template for this. It is essentially like a big out of town store but it is located near Lurgan town centre. Why can we not merge our planning thinking and save our town centres with this kind of planned development? It means looking again at road infrastructures near town centres and creating new and bigger free parking opportunities. It also means looking at new links between existing out of town centres and nearby local towns.
“In addition to all of this we need a series of planned events such as festivals and markets backed by an intensive shop local campaign.
“We need, above all, to develop a planning culture at the heart of government instead of being simply reactive as government are at present. Government lacks imagination. It is far too plodding in its attitudes. It lacks a planning culture. Mary Portas’s phrase about our dying town centres, “We won’t miss them till they’re gone”, rings true in my ears and, I suspect, in the ears of many people.”