Northern Ireland

Can we save the UK and Ireland's high streets with multi-use spaces?

Empty retail units in Bangor
Image caption The Flagship Centre closed in February 2019 and many retail units nearby have closed

Could a multi-use space be what it takes to transform our struggling high streets?

According to statistics from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Springboard, footfall on NI's high streets was down by 5.5% last month, making it the worst region in the UK.

Some people in Bangor, County Down, think they may have found the answer.

The seaside town's main shopping centre, the Flagship Centre, closed its doors earlier this year.

The premises is privately owned and is now in administration.

Image caption Louise Little, manager of North Down Community Network, has long campaigned for a rejuvenation of the Flagship Centre

Louise Little, manager of North Down Community Network, believes a multi-use facility where community, voluntary, health, business, statutory and faith-based sectors can operate under the same roof could regenerate the community and create major footfall.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the group is "thinking in a way that a lot of town centres need to".

"We need to be having these conversations now because this seismic change is already underway," Aodhán Connolly told BBC News NI.

Image caption Aodhán Connolly is director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium

"Retail is going to contract in years to come so there will be fewer but better shops. That means we need to look at having an eclectic mix for our towns and city centres.

"We will still need to have that strong symbiotic relationship of small and large retail but we will need more offices, hospitality and leisure. We need to make our town centres destinations where people want to spend their time as well as their money.

"We can also look at making new communities by having town centre living or living over the shops (LoTS) schemes that enhance footfall and the usage of space."

Community

Kellie Walker is a yoga teacher from California, who runs Stay Open Yoga in Bangor.

"At the moment, if you're starting off as a small business, you can't even dream of having your own place because it's too expensive," she said.

"But if local people could use the empty spaces and the rates were brought down then the local community could thrive.

Image caption Kellie Walker would like the high street to bring communities together

"In Nashville, there's this place that has a bowling alley, a bar, coffee shop and some activities, all under one roof, and something like that would be perfect.

"Bangor is beautiful but there isn't much to do. If you used up some of the empty retail space you could bring together people for a range of things, whether that be for yoga or photography, whatever.

"When we started Stay Open Yoga, we really wanted it to be community focused and if we had a fun space to go to after our classes it would encourage people to come together and hang out."

Image caption Mike Hamilton said car parks in the town often have a huge number of free spaces at the weekends

Mike Hamilton said that Bangor "doesn't have much of a buzz at the minute" and his business's turnover is significantly down, compared to this time last year.

While Saturdays are supposed to be the busiest shopping day of the week, the owner of The Drawing Room café said there are often lots of car parking spaces available.

"We now, more than ever, need an investment in our once bustling town," said Mike.

Image caption There is currently a consultation taking place for the Bangor Waterfront project which is set to redevelop a stretch of the seafront

In May, a new development consortium was appointed in an another attempt to redevelop part of Bangor's seafront.

There have been plans to regenerate the area known as Queen's Parade since at least 1999.

The proposed scheme includes a hotel, cinema and other commercial space as well as enhanced public spaces.

Queen's Parade

Ards and North Down Borough Council said it "recognises the importance of the centre in terms of its potential regeneration and economic benefits to the town and the wider borough".

It said that the Flagship Centre is privately owned and in administration but the council is working with key partners on an appraisal that will outline potential options for redevelopment of the centre.

"We are seeking to ensure any solutions are integrated with the exciting private sector investment plans for Queen's Parade and the wider Bangor Waterfront Regeneration plans progressing under the Belfast Region City Deal.

"Combined, these two projects have the potential to deliver £110m of investment into the town centre with the aim of establishing Bangor as a thriving town and prime visitor attraction in Northern Ireland."

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