Lowly Larne – residents and business share views as part of MEA Council town centre plan
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council needs to “go back to the drawing board, focus on supporting local businesses and abandon plans to increase the cost of visiting the town centre”.
That is the view of businessman Tom McMullan who was commenting on an update to the Larne Town Centre Investment Plan and Strategy.
An update was presented to the council’s Environment and Economy Committee last week.
An independent report commissioned by the borough council suggests that a “strong hospitality sector and night-time economy” may boost Larne town centre’s recovery following the Covid pandemic.
Vacancy and dereliction must be addressed to “improve presentation and image”, the town centre health check report says.
The “health check” carried out by two consultancy firms also recommends amalgamation of vacant units for provision of a “larger food store” in the town centre, the development of more leisure services such as restaurants and bars with incentives such as rent-free periods for uptake of vacant units.
Residential development has also been proposed as well as a new hotel.
Public engagement carried out in 2021 to update the Larne Town Centre Masterplan found that 46 per cent of respondents considered town centre facilities to be average and 43 below average.
The retail mix was considered by 55 per cent to be poor or very poor, 74 per cent considered the tourist offering to be poor or very poor and 90 per cent described the evening economy also as poor or very poor.
Eighty-nine per cent considered parking to be average or better and half rated it as good.
The customer experience was considered to be average or better by 62 per cent people and good or very good by 35 per cent.
Mobility, parking and access were found to be an issue for 53 per cent of respondents.
In 2021, the town centre had 282 commercial units. Of these, 97 were services, 35 were retail / convenience; 32 were retail “comparative”; 29 hospitality; 12, charity; 63 were vacant; nine, residential and five, derelict.
Fashion retailers M&Co which had a presence in the town for more than 13 years and New Look shut up shop at Latharna Retail Park. Greggs bakery failed to reopen its Main Street branch after lockdown in 2020.
In 2020, 52 per cent of retailers and businesses rated Larne town centre as average and 22 per cent, poor or very poor. Seventy-four per cent said dereliction was a “significant” issue.
Accessibility, mobility, parking and public access were considered an issue by 53 per cent.
Larne lost Dunnes Stores from Main Street in September 2019.
That year, the annual retail turnover of Larne town centre was estimated at £74.6m. The report predicted three years’ recovery from the Covid pandemic,
The Larne Town Centre Investment Plan and Town Centre Strategy seeks to target building refurbishment to “encourage town centre living and enhance the built heritage” and to create a more attractive town centre environment through “high quality streetscape” to include Dunluce Street, Lower Cross Street and Point Street.
It suggests that “high quality events will ensure public realm areas are brought to life”.
Environmental improvements are proposed between the Harbour Highway underpass and town centre. A pedestrian crossing at Bridge street has been mooted. An improved path connection at Inver River is among suggestions.
Plans for Riverdale include a “pop-up park” to include green space, seating, planting and play space.
However, Tom McMullan who has previously criticised the cost of Larne’s business rates said.
"MEA Council has, since its inception, imposed the highest business rates of any local authority in the UK for virtually every year since it replaced the local council.
“In the current year, the district rate set by MEA is 40 per cent higher than that set by the council with the lowest rate. Indeed, MEA has set a district rate which is even 20 per cent higher than the NI average. Hardly an environment to support business investment.
“It is, I think, somewhat ironic that the council is launching its updated ‘masterplan’ at a time when it is in the process of encircling the town centre with charge based car parks by introducing charges at Exchange Road and Circular Road East.
“Such a policy will heap further costs on the public during a cost of living crisis and will provide a disincentive to shoppers to visit the town centre thus placing more local businesses in jeopardy.
“I would therefore not have much confidence in a plan which only delivered a few of its priority projects over the last 10 years and does not appear to understand the scale of the vacant property issue in the town centre and thus the challenges faced by local businesses.
“MEA need to go back to the drawing board on this plan, focus on supporting local businesses and immediately abandon plans to increase the cost of visiting the town centre.”
Mark Dobbin, vice chair of Larne Traders’ Forum, has described the new charges at Circular Road East and Exchange Road Car Parks which bring an end to free parking in most town centre car parks as “absolutely ridiculous”.
“This is going to push customers out of the town centre and will congest the town with people trying to park on Main Street,” he said.
Mr Dobbin praised the public realm scheme which has been extended to Point Street saying it has “improved the look of the town”.
However, he said he feared that the number of vacant shops was “only going to get worse”.