High Street Task Force

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 11th October 2021.

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Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 11th October 2021

6. Mr Gildernew asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the planned high street task force co-design and stakeholder engagement process has begun. (AQO 2546/17-22)

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission, junior Minister Middleton will answer the question.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I know that Members and their constituents share our goal of high streets that are thriving places for people to do business, socialise, shop, be creative and use public services, as well as, of course, being great places to live. The high street task force is chaired by junior Minister Kearney and me. As members, we have met people from across government, business, academia, professional bodies, trade unions and, indeed, the community and voluntary sectors. That has been identifying challenges and considering solutions to continue to make our high streets, towns and villages thriving and sustainable places.

The key themes and issues have been identified, and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders is currently being worked up and will commence later this month with a call for evidence. We will seek the widest possible engagement and sharing of views and experiences when the call for evidence gets under way. The findings from the call for evidence, together with other data, will inform a draft report and recommendations that will be subject to full public consultation and equality considerations before a final report is presented for agreement by the Executive by spring 2022.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I also welcome my fellow constituency MLA Deborah Erskine to the Assembly, and I look forward to working with her on behalf of all of the people of our constituency.

In that respect, Minister, I am sure that you will join me in welcoming the fact that the high street voucher scheme is finally under way. Do you also agree that longer-term strategic support is needed to revitalise our high streets sustainably and properly?

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for that question, and, of course, I join him in welcoming Deborah Erskine to her place. I wish her well in representing the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

I completely agree with the Member about the high street voucher scheme and the specific issues that it has, particularly relating to the Department for the Economy.

I am confident that the members of the high street task force will do their work. When we bring forward the report, I am sure that it will be sufficient not only in looking at the long-term benefits of the high street voucher scheme but in ensuring how we reinvigorate our high streets in the future.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Does the Minister recognise that speed is also of the essence when it comes to revitalising our high streets? While I appreciate that a task force will have a longer-term job and role to perform, our high streets are under extreme pressure now, particularly with utility costs.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

Speed is always important, but, at the same time, it is important that we get our actions right. The high street task force met on 8 September, and we will meet again on 20 October. It has a long-term focus on addressing the pressing need to transform our high streets in response to fundamental, societal and economic changes; indeed, as Mr Dickson mentioned, it is very much a long-term project. That transformation will not happen overnight. Significant work has already happened to get us to this point. The call for evidence will launch soon. It will provide an opportunity for people to have their say and will be an essential step in bringing to life the vision and seeing the results at street level.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

The junior Minister will know of my passion for town-centre regeneration. I shared that with him during our time on the Committee for the Economy, and we had many discussions on the issue. As the Member for East Antrim said, it feels as though many of our independent retailers are on their knees. Many of them are looking at the task force as the last-ditch hope to save our town centres. Given how long it will take, what can be done in the interim, through collaborative working with councils and others, to keep the wolves at bay from the businesses in town centres that are really under pressure?

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for his question, and I agree with him. In recent years, Departments have implemented programmes in our town and city centres to improve their attractiveness not only as places to shop but as places to work, socialise and invest in. The Government have been investing in our town and city centres for decades through regeneration programmes. New issues have emerged, however, and those have had significant impacts that need to be addressed.

Funding has been approved to provide the secretarial support for the high street task force, and that will be located in the Department for Communities. At this stage, before Ministers have agreed the high street task force's final report and recommendations, it is too early to envisage what further funding will be required. It is important to note that, under COVID recovery, COVID-19 revitalisation funding of £19·3 million has been allocated to councils to enable support for a wide range of schemes, including physical interventions such as streetscape improvements, signage and dressing, as well as access and connectivity.