I APPRECIATE the opportunity by the Banbridge Leader to address concerns raised by their readers in the relation to our Judicial Review of the proposed out of town Tesco Hypermarket at Bridgewater.
The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association is a business group which campaigns for a fair deal for independent traders and has members in every village, town and city in Northern Ireland.
We lobby hard on their behalf on a whole range of issues such as rates, tax, planning reform and last week after campaigning with local traders, we were successful in getting the Department for Regional Development to drop the on street car park charges in Banbridge and 29 other towns across Northern Ireland.
Banbridge has one of the best town centres in Northern Ireland and is a jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s independent retail sector. We not only want to see this maintained, but also to see it grow and attract even more retailers to the town centre.
You don’t have to look very far for example of the damage that out of town hypermarkets do to local town centres. Look at Carrickfergus, Larne and Antrim - their town centers have lost many independent stores and the town centres have declined as a result.
NIIRTA and local town centre traders fully respect the views of a section of the local community who support the proposed Tesco store at Bridgewater. It is an entirely legitimate view to take.
As in any free and open society the supporters of this store must also fully respect that many local traders, and indeed over 3000 local people in a petition, do not support the proposed location of the Tesco store at Bridgewater. Also, a right for any organisation or individual to seek legal recourse in the courts is a fundamental right in a democratic society.
I would appeal to those in Banbridge who disagree with our views and Judicial Review to understand the very real genuine fears of local independent retailers, who support 1500 jobs in the town, of the negative impact that this store would have on the town.
Planning Service’s research shows that this hypermarket would take £18 million out of the Banbridge Town Centre economy, which would directly threaten hundreds of jobs with local small businesses. Indeed research from England and Wales conducted by the National Retailing Planning Forum show that this type of store could result in a net loss of around 270 jobs.
Ultimately this store will destroy and displace existing retail jobs in Banbridge Town Centre and leave it little more than a ghost town with Bridgewater becoming the new town centre. Jobs with local small businesses are just as important as those with multi-nationals.
On previous occasions, both the Planning Service and the independent Planning Appeals Commission rejected this hypermarket because of the damage it would do the Banbridge Town Centre. Earlier this year Planning Service recommended to the previous Minister of the Environment that it again should be rejected.
I also want to point out that NIIRTA at no time has ever claimed to represent all local traders in Banbridge. The decision to take this Judicial Review was taken with full consultation and is supported by a wide number of local traders, many of whom are not our members.
It is entirely an individual matter for those local traders to decide if they wish to make their views on this matter public. It certainly does not encourage them to air their views when they are constantly subjected to outrageous and over the top attacks in the local press and social media sites.
NIIRTA was extremely disappointed that Banbridge Council passed a motion calling for us to withdraw our Judicial Review without giving us an opportunity to outline our views or to even have a right of reply. We were not even given any formal notice by the Council that they planned to debate this motion and in fact read about it in this newspaper.
We wrote out to every Banbridge MLA and Councillor offering a meeting to outline our reasons as to why we took the Judicial Review. I fully respect the views of Banbridge Council but it was grossly unfair of them not to accord us an opportunity to give our side of the story before voting on the motion.
There has also been much talk about the Outlet Store failing in recent months. The recession and the dramatic decrease in the number of southern shoppers coming north have impacted upon all retailers in every part of the province, not only the Outlet.
We want to see Outlet go from strength to strength and strongly support the ongoing efforts of its Centre Manager and Banbridge Chamber to jointly market the considerable retail offering. Furthermore we support the original intention of the Bridgewater developers for a business park and new industrial space to make the area attractive to sustainable Foreign Direct Investment.
Just under two years ago local traders sought to meet with the developer and Tesco to see if a compromise was possible. The developer pulled the plug on this initiative.
We are not anti-multiple – we fully support, as a compromise option, the doubling in size of the existing edge of town Tesco store which would create a substantial store much the same size as what is detailed in the current application. NIIRTA would also work with Banbridge Council to develop a retail development plan to attract new retailers to the town centre.
In conclusion independent traders do not fear fair and open competition with the big multiples nor are they in any way anti-multiple supermarket. Out of town hypermarkets with their one stop shop approach and free car parking constitute unfair competitive practice.
Instead of trying to locate in unsustainable out of town locations, we want to urge Tesco to locate in our town centres where they can increase the retail offer for the consumers.
The proposed Tesco Bridgewater store would bring no long term economic gain to Banbridge. Its only contribution would be to turn Banbridge town centre into a deserted ghost town with empty boarded up retail unit within five years -something I am sure no one wants to see. And by that time, the damage would be irreversible.