Levelling Up Fund: Town Centre Regeneration

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP 2:15 pm, 13th September 2021

6. Mr Harvey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what engagement has the high street task force had with local councils regarding bids submitted to the UK Levelling Up Fund for town centre regeneration projects. (AQO 2370/17-22)

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I ask junior Minister Middleton to answer that question.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

On 3 March 2021, the UK Government published documentation and application processes for the Levelling Up Fund, with the call for applications closing on 18 June. The UK Levelling Up Fund is managed and directed by the UK Government, which have not engaged with the high street task force or asked for its views to date. Northern Ireland Departments have no role in the promotion or assessment of the Levelling Up Fund, nor have they any control over the objectives or criteria against which applicants will be assessed. To date, the high street task force has not engaged with councils in relation to the Levelling Up Fund, but it will speak to councils and others in the near future as it develops its recommendations on shaping interventions and investments over the coming months.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

I thank the junior Minister for his answer. Will he outline what progress has been made through the high street task force to date?

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for his supplementary. Restoring the vibrancy of our high streets will take a number of phases over a period of years. Of course, as we have emerged from the lockdown, the immediate priority has been opening high streets and rolling out a COVID recovery strategy. That has been the focus of the Executive and the Executive COVID task force, which is headed by the head of the Civil Service. The high street task force, the latest meeting of which I chaired last week, has a longer-term focus of addressing the fundamental need for the transformation of our high streets in response to societal and economic changes. It is working to bring forward recommendations on priority work areas and potential funding opportunities.

It is very much a long-term project. Transformation will not happen overnight, and significant work has already gone into getting us to this point. Significant work has already been carried out by the Executive Office and the Department for Communities to set up the high street task force. Four bespoke subgroups, reflecting the four functions or work streams of the task force, have been set up, with the membership being as broad and as inclusive as possible. A dedicated staffing resource has been put in place, allowing the secretariat support to manage the high street task force to ensure overall governance, set direction, commission work and provide formal approval or sign-off on products.

The task force has been actively engaged in establishing four subgroups, which have met on a number of occasions, and drawing up relevant themes that affect towns, city and village centres across Northern Ireland. A programme of comprehensive engagement and co-design with stakeholders, including councils, will commence very shortly, and the high street task force is aiming to complete its report and recommendations by March 2022.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the junior Minister agree that, at the moment, the high street task force lacks strategic direction and support? It is now in danger of losing steam and momentum. I am really concerned, because this is the moment when the high street task force needs to lead the way in order to build back to recovery and build back stronger than before.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for her question. The high street task force, which, as I said, I chaired last week, has been focused, over the past months, on trying to get the mechanisms in place and hearing from the subgroup members. They brought forward all that information last week at the plenary meeting. I hope that, along with junior Minister Kearney, there will be another meeting in the next six weeks. Momentum has been building. There is a lot of expectation around the high street task force, and we are trying to manage that, but I am mindful that we have put in place support through the secretariat to move that along.

I pay tribute to all members of the high street task force. A huge amount of effort has been put in. Their expertise is very much valued. I look forward to the next number of weeks, when we can bring forward all the proposals, and we can go out to the people in our communities to hear their views. Hopefully, we can bring something forward that can be used by all Ministers to try to make our high streets and town centres a better place for all of us to live in.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our town centres. I think of Bangor town centre in particular, where a number of retailers have now closed or left the town centre. Will the junior Minister confirm that it is really important that those recommendations come forward at speed and that they are concrete, specific recommendations and initiatives to help our town centres across Northern Ireland?

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I absolutely agree. Junior Minister Kearney and I have focused on trying to keep that momentum but also on giving space to the members with expertise in the group, in order to allow them to share their views and to ensure that, when we engage with the people in your constituency, businesses and chambers of commerce, we bring something that is effective and can be implemented. We also want to ensure that, if the timelines allow us to complete that piece of work by March 2022, it can be lifted and used and will continue to be of use for our town and city centres when new Ministers take up office.