Reviving the High Street: Economy Minister Gordon Lyons
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons reveals how he’s bringing shoppers back onto the High Street
The High Street Scheme was a novel, bold and ambitious initiative launched by my Department in September and it has achieved exactly what it set out to do.
The policy objective was twofold; firstly to bring people back on to the High Street and secondly to inject an economic shot in the arm directly into our retail, hospitality and service sectors and help these businesses to recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic.
The scale of the task of delivering the High Street Scheme was unprecedented. In only a matter of months we put in place a system to process just under 1.4 million people who were verified and able to spend their Spend Local prepaid card in towns and villages across Northern Ireland.
We implemented a process to manufacture, dispatch and deliver cards – unique to every applicant – which would be spent with local businesses. And we worked with traders to ensure their understanding of the scheme and to incentivise sales.
Over £136 million was injected into the Northern Ireland economy as a result. It brought customers back through the doors of local retail, hospitality and other sectors and there was spend over and above the £100 on the card by people who used it as a part payment for a larger purchase.
The success of the scheme is clear when I speak with retailers across Northern Ireland, but it has also been confirmed by independent analysis.
According to an Ulster Bank Survey, retail sales in Northern Ireland rose in November 2021 for the first time in four months. The bank’s Chief Economist Richard Ramsey said the High Street Scheme undoubtedly contributed to the pick-up in demand.
New research in December 2021 also showed an increase in shoppers on Northern Ireland’s high streets. The figures published by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) showed a boost to the number of people going into shops or businesses in October continuing in November following the introduction of the High Street Scheme. In November, the number of shoppers in Northern Ireland reached their highest point so far compared to the pre-pandemic level.
Aodhán Connolly, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Director, said then: “The High Street Card scheme is truly proving its value with a phenomenal bounce back in footfall across Northern Ireland. This is hugely welcome news for retailers who have had the toughest two years on record.”
The PWC December 2021 Economic Outlook stated: “Early indications are that Northern Ireland is the only region where economic growth has exceeded both expectations and the pre-crisis levels, while Scotland and Wales recorded an as-expected performance.”
Retail NI Chief Executive Glyn Roberts also said: “The High Street Scheme is an invaluable short term boost for thousands of local independent retailers and we hope to see this support continue beyond the lifetime of the scheme.”
The voices I was most pleased to hear though were the voices of the many shop owners who benefited from the High Street Scheme spending after a very tough period due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many personally spoke to me about the value of the scheme. Others took to social media platforms like Twitter to say thank you to customers who had chosen to spend all – or part – of their £100 with them.
“It really made a difference,” one said. “I’m overwhelmed by your kindness,” a book shop owner wrote to their customers.
These individuals highlighted most strongly why this scheme mattered.
High street importance
High street shops play a vitally important role in towns and cities across Northern Ireland and this has never been more evident than over the last two years. Many remained open during the tough early days of the pandemic, they adapted to social distancing measures to continue trading and faced tough times during lockdown periods.
It was essential that we provided Northern Ireland businesses with financial support through the DfE Covid business support grants. These grants enabled thousands of businesses to keep their doors open, secured tens of thousands of jobs and provided hope for families and communities. We provided around a half a billion pounds to over 32,000 businesses through a number of essential support schemes, all of which were developed and delivered in unprecedented turnaround times.
My Department’s Economic Recovery Action Plan shifted the focus last year from crisis response to economic recovery. The High Street Scheme was a key element in this plan.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the retailers who supported and promoted the High Street Scheme. Many also incentivised spend in their premises by offering additional savings or rewards. You all played an important role in ensuring millions of pounds reached our high streets where and when it was needed.
I am confident about the future for retail in Northern Ireland. Covid-19 has reshaped our economy but it has also highlighted the resilience and creativity of our businesses across Northern Ireland.
To read the full article in the Neighbourhood Retailer yearbook, click HERE.