Town centre fighting its corner

It’s a step in the right direction as Portadown town centre records a four per cent rise in Christmas shopping. And hopefully it will be a harbinger of things to come as 2014 ends and 2015 dawns.

Many elements combined to effect the turn-around from former lean years. Established traders like JR McMahon, Castle Hardware, Davidson’s and Winnie’s Newsagents have drawn on their vast experience – some in business for generations – to survive the storm of multinationals (some of them transient), online shopping and the shopping centre syndrome, to remain solvent and turn a profit.

The charity shops and the ‘economy’ establishments (with the charities not having to pay rates) have also created tough opposition. And there has been much illegal trade – in the likes of cigarettes and perfumes of questionable quality - to further test the established businesses.

In the case of the illegal goods, the authorities have been found totally wanting. The police say it’s up to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to sort it out, with HMRC parroting that they’re doing the job on a national scale, suggesting that the local trade in the likes of Portadown is just a pin-prick.

Maybe so. But the bona fide traders pay their rent, taxes and rates, and the issue should be tackled on a local scale as well, as the PSNI are the local upholders of the law. And it’s rather satisfying to know that the hooky cigs are causing throat problems. Who knows what’s in the smokes and the perfume, with national ads suggesting that animal by-product could be in the ‘recipe’.

So we salute the town traders for their determination and their expertise in rolling with every blow that is aimed their way. A real boon to them in the run-up to Christmas 2014 has been the parking concessions – the free parking days, the £1 for five hours and the first-two-hours free.

They all count, and DRD Minister Danny Kennedy and his aides must come up with more ways to help. Portadown is exceptionally well off for car parks right around the periphery of the town, and a concerted policy – to give the town a level playing field with the likes of Rushmere - must be worked out.

All the traders we spoke to reiterated that the sensible parking policies this year contributed greatly to the upturn, and that sort of sensible thinking must be continued.

Then, as the new ABC Council takes on parking powers, that ethos must continue. The powers will be handed over in a couple of years’ time. And with local councillors being closer to the local traders than the politicians at Stormont are, they must work out a scheme to suit their own area.

In the meantime, Danny Kennedy and Co must continue to offer a fair deal in parking. Healthy, competitive shopping in towns like Portadown, Coleraine, Londonderry, Newtownards etc creates local wealth and local jobs. And when the councils take over, the high streets must be able to continue competing with the rest.

To coin an old phrase that focuses on the canine population: ‘Sensible parking (a combination of free and charged) isn’t just for Christmas – it must be for the entire year’.