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Concerns raised over shops opening this Friday with pedestrianisation of town centres possible

Pedestrianisation, staggered opening hours and evening trading, canopies, gazebos and outdoor heaters in the event of bad weather and one-way systems around shops.

These – and more – are all in the mix as possibilities which could be introduced in the city, towns and villages which make up the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough as retail shops prepare to throw open their doors to the public from Friday.

Ulster Unionist councillor Sam Nicholson voiced his fears over the imminent opening and how this would be managed and just how prepared the borough was to cope.

He raised his concerns during the course of a remote meeting of the economic committee on Tuesday night, as the council considered ways and means of helping businesses on the road to recovery.

“I think the announcement on Monday that all shops in our town centres will be opening this Friday is a major concern which we really should be worried about,” said councillor Nicholson.

“I’ve been out and about and the queues that have been outside shops have been quite long with the two metre distance – and these are the large, large shops, obviously your Asdas and other supermarkets.

“My concern really is in our town centres. We need to engage more with our small and medium sized businesses going forward to make sure they are on board.”

During consideration of a report on the future for town centres and the next step, the Ulster Unionist representative said he was “shocked” that city centre task forces were not mentioned.

He said these forums had been set up which integrated councillors, officers, the retail sector, the chambers of commerce, and the city centre management.

And Councillor Nicholson added: “There needs to be urgent discussions to make sure that whatever we are doing is fully supported by the businesses out there.”

He said there was a short term strategy and a long term strategy here and they now needed to look at those short term issues.

Councillor Nicholson told the meeting tonight: “I’ve been round a few businesses in Armagh and other towns are the same. They are small frontages. So you imagine they are opening on Friday and there’s queues outside every shop going up Scotch Street in Armagh.

“How do they maintain social distancing on a footpath that’s not two metres wide for a start? I can see real issues going forward here and problems for our environmental health officers, in relation to trying to, having been given the task, to police this opening of shops and making sure they are complying with what’s required.

“Who knows what Friday will bring or what next week will bring. The social distancing might reduce, we don’t know. All these things are obviously in the gifts of others.”

Councillor Nicholson said he supported calls for an ‘opening our high streets safely’ fund and added: “We need to give our traders assistance, our small businesses and medium businesses, on how they can open safely.

“Our businesses are crying out for information. The initial response with the grants has been welcome but we have to keep that going in recovery. They need to be brought up to speed on what they can do and can’t do and things like that.”

Councillor Nicholson also asked that council write to the Department of the Communities at this time, which has control over roads and the pavements.

“We have to look really, really outside the box here and talk to our traders on things like staggered opening times, evening opening times. Anything at all,” he said.

Such things, he explained, might ease the pressure of what is going to happen.

But he continued: “It’s OK this time of year, the sun’s been shining. I was standing outside the bank one day and it was great and I was thinking to myself it’s lovely, the sun’s shining here and I’m standing here in a queue. But as we go into the autumn months this is still going to be here. When it’s raining, when it’s cold, when it’s miserable.

“When people are going to have to stand outside shops and queue. Those are the sorts of thing that we have to deal with because it’s not going to be a very attractive proposition for people going to our town centres to stand and queue in the inclement weather.”

Councillor Nicholson – who said they needed to “drive home the message of shop local” – continued: “We need to look at who was there for us at this time of the pandemic and support our local businesses.”

He called for the task forces to be “up and running ASAP to see what the traders are saying and then take it from there”.

Head of Regeneration Therese Rafferty explained that there already was a structure in place which is “along the lines of the task force”.

“We have two lead officers for each DEA and they are similar to the task force,” she explained. “And behind each one of those officers there’s a team of people redeployed from the department to assist in various areas and assist them with various queries.

“And we’re not talking just about urban centres. We’re talking about every town, village, hamlet in the borough. It’s quite a lot for two officers with a team behind them to deal with.”

Ms Rafferty said officers have also been attending chamber meetings and working alongside the shop owners.

And she added: “They have been out in the towns, walking the streets, talking to the traders. Even today, after the news came out yesterday, they were out this morning in a number of towns, speaking to the traders and hearing from them the issues which will then influence the interventions that we put in place.”

In response to Councillor Nicholson’s concerns in relation to social distanced queuing and seasonal factors, she revealed a debate on this front.

Added Ms Rafferty: “There’s been a number of novel suggestions, in terms of canopies and gazebos, and things like that to assist in inclement weather. Heaters, the lot, they’re all being thought about. Using one-way systems, using other exits. All these things are being talked about and we are looking at those in terms of seeing what we can do with our funders.

“All our traders are solutions-focussed and if two or three businesses beside each other are all going to have queues, then those businesses have traded beside each other for years and they are seeking solutions to allow all of them to work together and that’s happening in all our towns at the moment. I wouldn’t sense from what I’m hearing back from my staff that there’s friction around that.

“In terms of the flow of people through the town and staggering opening and closing times, that’s one area where we would hope to use our town centre footfall counters to give us real time data that we can then feed through our communications that we are going to put in place to the public as to the level of people in the town, if it’s quieter or maybe safer for people who feel a little bit more unsure until we get through this initial phase.”

Councillor Nicholson then made another specific enquiry as to a possible consideration when he asked: “Will you consider potential pedestrianisation to assist the queuing?”

Ms Rafferty revealed the Department for Infrastructure are “are looking at that”.

“That is their responsibility,” she added. “They just keep telling us they are looking at it. They’ve done some tests, as far as I know, in some other towns. I haven’t any information on how that has worked or has not worked. But that is something that they’re looking at.

“We will work along with them. Whatever they want to do in terms of signage or want to put in place to help that. And we will also be a link in to the traders and the chambers to discuss any proposals, to allow them to discuss them and put them in front of the chambers as well.”

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