Glyn Roberts, NIIRTA

Glyn Roberts, NIIRTA
Glyn Roberts, NIIRTA (left) with First Minister Peter Robinson

Giving a view of the Northern Ireland retail landscape, NIIRTA CEO Glyn Roberts looks back at the wins in 2013 and how the trade organisation is approaching the next 12 months…

Retail is crucial to helping rebuild Northern Ireland’s economy and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association has played its part in highlighting the importance of this sector.

Glyn Roberts has been at the helm of NIIRTA for the past seven years and during that time has helped to bring the views of retailers and retail organisations to the table at government level on the island of Ireland and in GB.

The core members of NIIRTA are grocery retailers but the demographic now encompasses non-food retailers – in fact if you run a local independent retail organisation, NIIRTA will lobby on your behalf.

Whoever the members are, Glyn is focused on giving them value for money and believe that in 2013 NIIRTA had a number of significant wins that have benefitted independent retailers across Northern Ireland.

“We had continuing progress with the small business rates relief scheme; we were successful in lobbying for parking discounts at Christmas too,” enthused Glyn.

“These are important bread and butter issues that we continue to push on and we were very engaged in ensuring that our members get the correct information regarding rates evaluation. I think we are making progress on the planning front as less out of town retail development is now being granted.”

Planning has been an issue that is yet to be resolved due to the continued delay of a new planning policy. Glyn is hopeful that the new planning policy will be published in 2014 and will take a ‘town centre first’ approach.

“We are making progress on a proper joined up approach to town and city centres. We need to ensure that we build a broader vision of town centres so it includes hospitality as well as retail; we need to put the social into shopping.”

However, one of the main concerns for independent retailers across Northern Ireland are shop unit vacancy rates.

High streets across Northern Ireland have a high percentage of retail units empty with the shutters firmly down. This is having an obvious effect on footfall figures which means some independent retailers are working twice as hard make the same margin.

“The big challenge in 2014 is addressing our shop vacancy rates and we now have the highest rates in the UK, double the national average.

Our footfall figures – as reported by my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium – make for grim reading too; six per cent down on 2012. We have a lot of work to do and relevance of NIIRTA is bigger than ever.”

Whilst the economy has underperformed through the past recessionary years, Glyn believes that there are more factors that have hampered businesses on the high street and are all factors that can be addressed at a local level.

“I do believe that some town centres have been complacent; not changing as fast as they should. There’s a constant process of innovation and change in retail and sometimes independent retailers don’t make that change fast enough,” said Glyn.

However, he was quick to point out that some retailers are making headway and utilising technology with Magherafelt being the first town centre in Northern Ireland to have its own promotional app. The roll-out of free town centre wi-fi across NI would help to see this replicated across the country.

Glyn Roberts, NIIRTA, car parking
Glyn Roberts (right) with DRD Minister Danny Kennedy

“There’s also a lack of joined up approach in terms of car parking, planning, regeneration and transport so what we are keen to see in 2014 is the creation an all-Ireland town team which brings together all of the relevant government departments.

An issue Glyn is keen to highlight is this year’s local council elections and the impact this will have on the retail sector.

The 11 new councils will initially be elected in a shadow capacity but the overall outcome will mean the issues that affect local retail will come under the auspices of local councils.

Glyn explained: “Issues like urban regeneration, planning and off-street car parking are all being passed down to local councils and the big challenge for our members is ensuring that they are aware of that change because it will mean that the Executive will be doing less and your local councillor will be doing a lot more.”

“What we will be doing in early 2014 is producing our own manifesto about what we want to see the next generation of councils and councillors doing. We want to ask them what their vision is to develop their town centres when they have the power to make changes in 2015. It will be a very policy focused year.”

New technology is revitalising the sector too and whilst many independent retailers may not have made in-roads when it comes to online business, new digital platforms such as social media and apps are another tool that the retailer can utilise.

Younger retailers are now operating in the market and reaping the benefits of an interactive online presence.

“I think we are the start of the digital high street which is a different proposition to online shopping,” said Glyn.

“It is based on having strong vibrant town centres that are connected though technology, social media which is all growing at a very strong pace.”

Looking ahead to the next 12 months Glyn is keeping a keen eye on the local and national elections and the impact they will have on independent retail and continuing to lobby on behalf of retailers.

“We have met everyone form the Prime Minister and Chancellor downwards,” said Glyn.

“I’m very pleased with the success of small business Saturday – no doubt it brought increased footfall throughout town centres and this will take place again on December 6, 2014.”

He added: “This year will is also about strengthening links with town based chambers and we will be building on these partnerships. It will be very much be a year that will help move the retail sector to the next level.”