Shops across Mid Ulster will be hoping for bumper Christmas sales over the next few days as they struggle to survive in difficult trading conditions.
The district’s main towns Cookstown, Magherafelt and Dungannon, have been hit hard by falling footfall as shoppers desert the high street to shop online or visit the larger cities or out-of-town shopping centres.
The local council is backing a call for rates relief for businesses in the town centres similar to a model in England, Scotland and Wales recently announced by the Chancellor.
The council is to write to the Permanent Secretary for Finance pressing for the same model to be introduced in Northern Ireland before there are no town centres left.
Many businesses in the town centres are paying thousands of pounds in rates each year in addition to overheads.
Independent councillor Barry Monteith believes action is needed now to encourage more people to open businesses in town centres and action to help those in business stay in business.
“Town centre rates continue to be a major issue for town centres,” he said. “In comparison to edge of town units and enterprise centres the cost is too high. Initiatives to alleviate this are used in other countries like England and Wales. I welcome the decision of the council to lobby on this issue.
“Town centres need a major injection of resources, finances and redevelopment. New ideas should be examined; incentives and promotions that can only be accessed in person, the ability to shop online from the town centre, a town centre home delivery system, investigate and implement town centre shopper loyalty schemes, to name a few.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Trevor Wilson said it was now a battle for survival on the high street.
“The council works hard to attract shoppers to our towns but we can’t do it on our own,” he stressed.
“Urgent help is required from the Government in the form of rates relief for our town centre businesses.”
Councillor Wilson said if this did not happen then he feared for the survival of many. “We can’t afford to let our high streets to die off, some strategy must be found to prevent this happening,” he added.
Councillor Monteith pointed out that the development of Ann Street in Dungannon will be the most significant development in the town in a generation.
“The area was formerly a hive of activity and needs restored to its former glory,” he continued. “Any money from the development should be kept in Dungannon to fund to further economic development in other parts of the town centre.
“It could be added to further funding from council or other bodies. It could be used to purchase/renovate/rebuild other derelict sites in the town centre. It could be used to encourage the opening or re-opening of an hotel in the town. This could be the template for regeneration across towns and villages in the Mid Ulster Council area.”