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Junior Minister Gary Middleton commented following the first meeting of the Executive’s High Streets Task Force.

Our high streets are changing. The way we work, live, shop, enjoy leisure, access services, and travel is different today compared with 5, 10 and 20 years ago.

It is evident in every one of our cities, towns and villages.

That change has not just been disruptive but, in many cases, deeply damaging.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and deepened that change, but we know that its roots pre-date this. Retail trends, the prevailing economic mood and broader business landscape create an uncertain backdrop.

In recent weeks and months we have seen the devastating impact on businesses, sectors, employees and communities.

It is in this context that we held our first meeting as the Executive’s High Streets Task Force, to identify all the challenges but also the solutions and actions we can take to support our high streets and city centres.

Our strategic aim is to contribute to the development of thriving and sustainable city, town and village centres.

Collectively, the Task Force includes a range of business representatives from retail, hospitality and elsewhere. But there is a recognition that these issues go far beyond business, and the broader membership includes: local government; academia; the voluntary and community sector; the culture and arts sector; tourism; and trade unions.

Together, this represents huge experience, expertise, and economic and social acumen around the, currently virtual, table.

We have a bold, ambitious vision: “Sustainable city, town and village centres which are thriving places for people to do business, socialise, shop, be creative and use public services as well as being great places to live.”

It is a vision that will require all of us working together, and the broadest possible buy-in from those who live and use these local spaces. It needs partnership, as well as a focus on delivery.

The purpose of the Taskforce is to contribute to:

  • developing the strategic approach to delivering the vision and responding to the economic and social challenges facing village, town and city centres;
  • building and strengthening the partnerships that will deliver the strategic response; and
  • building the capacity needed to achieve the vision.

This is very much a long term project. Transformation won’t happen overnight and significant work has already gone in to getting us to this point.

While still in the early stages, there is a clear determination from the Executive to address the many entrenched challenges faced by our high streets, and an enthusiasm from the broad range of stakeholders involved to be part of the solution.

Right across society, there is a desire for our high streets to succeed. They are more than simply places to shop: they are a focal point for the community.

That is as true in Belfast as it is in, for example, Banbridge or Ballyclare. The Task Force membership will use its networks to ensure a balanced approach that reaches across the entire region.

With this, comes the understanding that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. Every high street is different; they each have their own character and personality. These traits as unique as the village, town or city where they are located. And they will need bespoke local solutions.

It is about seizing control of that change, creating a new vision of thriving high streets where retail and hospitality can play their part.

That vision is about building something new; not about resisting change or reinventing the past. The key lesson from other places is that no single sector can provide all of the solution. We need to see high streets as diverse business ecosystems that meet the needs of communities.

So, as we take the initial early steps towards our goal we appreciate the size and scale of the challenge ahead. But we do so with an ambition and a desire to succeed.