High Street Scheme Northern Ireland trailblazing the high street revival
NR talks to Minister for the Economy Gordon Lyons about the scheme – and how it’s set to build confidence, resilience and results for local retailers.
£145 million will pour into the high streets in September – thanks to the High Street Scheme designed by the Department for the Economy – Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to bring forth the vibrant scheme which means that everyone – over the age of 18 – who registers will received a pre-paid £100 card to spend in retail and hospitality – as long as it’s in the high street and not on-line.
On 29th July, Gordon Lyons – still fresh to his post as Economy Minister – announced that the tender to administer the scheme was awarded to Pre-Paid Financial Services (PFS), and he also revealed the new Shop Local logo.
NR asked the Minister about taking up this challenging role.
“It’s an exciting time – after a year and a half of restrictions and bad news. As a constituency representative for the past six or seven years I was dealing with local businesses on a daily basis and provided support when needed. What local businesses need now is stability and certainty.”
“This scheme is a key element of my Department’s Economic Recovery Action Plan and will give a very welcome boost to our high streets which were hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. This uplift is what our local businesses need and deserve.
“It will mean up to 1.4 million people will have an extra £100 each to spend on our high streets rather than online. This will help bring many more customers back through the doors of local retail, hospitality and other sectors.
“I look forward to seeing the benefits this scheme will bring to the wide range of businesses situated in the heart of towns, villages and cities across Northern Ireland.
“It will be beneficial for all. It’s the smaller independent shops that have been hit hardest and who haven’t had the deep pockets to fall back on.”
“People can spend their £100 wherever they like on the high street – it’s up to the retailers to incentivise their customers. We would encourage retailers to think of creative ways to encourage people to spend with them. Our research has actually shown that people will spend more – so this adds an advantage.
“Across the whole of Northern Ireland, we would encourage retailers to use all the tools at their disposal to generate custom and trade – to get people in to town centres and change some of the patterns of the pandemic.
High Street Task Force
“The scheme is intended to build confidence and to get the buzz back in to the high street.
“The High Street Task Force is being led by the Executive Office – but they have taken on board the advice from the Department of the Economy. That’s one of the key areas where my department can provide advice.”
NR asked the Minister for his views on the High Street Voucher scheme being restricted to those who are fully vaccinated – to protect others and encourage people that it’s safe to go out shopping again?
“It would be inappropriate to tie vaccines to the High Street Scheme. I would encourage everyone to get their vaccines – but to link this to the scheme would add another level of bureaucracy, and would require additional staff for verification.
“We wanted to make it a simple process. It’s not fair on the retailers to put more bureaucracy on to them either. It would also potentially throw up a raft of legal issues – which could potentially scupper the scheme” said Mr Lyons.
NR asked the Minister to outline plans for the High Street Voucher scheme – how will it operate, what will it look like, when will it launch, is there a time limit to use the vouchers etc?
“There will be a time limit – what we want and need is a quick injection now. Pre-Paid Financial Services will administer the scheme and our research has shown that in September there is a lull for retailers between the summer and the end of the year – so it’s the most effective time.”
What outcomes would you want to see from the scheme?
“Long term, we want to build up confidence and return balance to the high street – we want this to be a trend and not just for one month.”
Small independent retailers may become an endangered species – NR asked the Minister, what can we do to protect the economic lifeblood of local communities – their neighbourhood stores that provide employment, services, and that often act as social adhesives in small local and rural communities?
“That’s why we have this scheme – to protect retailers. It’s about long term sustainability and rebuilding confidence. Our research has shown that confidence is vital.”
What are your priorities as Economy Minister?
“Recovery – not only to where we were pre-Covid. Tourism had reached a high point – we can get that back again and more. Northern Ireland really does have a bright future – we need people to spend money in local shops and businesses, to take advantage of the scheme and really kickstart the economy.
“Broadly speaking, our new 10X Vision is about looking to the future, being innovative, attracting investment, and investing in people and skills to make the most of the place we live in.
“There are many challenges – but we also have bright opportunities.”
How can we save our high streets? (Post-pandemic – city centres and town centres have lost trade due to people working from home, not socialising, shopping online etc)
“The High Street Task Force and our High Street Scheme will build confidence. The guidance is to continue to work from home – and we are probably looking at new forms of hybrid working – but I would advise people to start coming back to the high street, let’s see some return to normality.
“We are also looking at how things will change on the high street – how it operates, we will just need to adjust.
“Jersey and Malta are two other jurisdictions that have a similar high street scheme – but in the UK, Northern Ireland is leading the way.”