Thursday, 7 March 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Eamon Ryan


5. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if her attention has been drawn to the recent closures of long-standing small retailers in central Dublin and other cities and towns; the measures she has considered to support such local businesses; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [11397/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (14 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

Recently when I was walking down Grafton Street, I realised another shop had closed, one that was part of our culture and heritage and the streetscape. I am referring to Fitzpatrick's shoe shop in which I used to buy my shoes. In Temple Bar the Eager Beaver shop which I have been into during the years and is a brilliant business is also shutting down. Walton's music shop was closed last year. This is not just happening in Dublin. My colleague Senator Grace O'Sullivan recently lamented the closure of the Sam McCauley chemist shop in Waterford. Liam Ruiséal's bookshop and Sheehan's greengrocer shop in Cork are also closing. A friend has told me that the number of butchers in Galway has gone from 15 to three. The Limerick Leader is running a big story about Cruise's Street and how it is an example of how the high street is not working. Is the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation monitoring this change in the retail sector? What is she doing about it and what can we do to support small Irish retailers?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

My Department established and convenes the retail consultation forum to enable key issues affecting the retail sector to be discussed - it is a very important forum - with a view to identifying practical actions which could be taken by the Government or the industry to support sustainable jobs growth in the sector. The retail sector is the largest private sector employer in the country and 90% Irish owned. It supports jobs in every city, town and village and the Department very much understands its importance.

A Framework for Town Centre Renewal was developed in 2017 by a working group of the retail consultation forum, setting out a practical step by step action plan for stakeholders to work collaboratively to enhance their local town or village. The framework also encourages towns and villages to establish digital platforms in response to the changing retail environment. At a collaborative level, using the framework, town groups can work together to improve footfall and customer experience in town centres through various measures such as enhancing accessibility, public spaces and tackling vacant property.

The framework also serves as a support document for towns and villages applying for funding streams under Project 2040. These include the €2 billion urban regeneration and development fund and the €1 billion rural regeneration fund which can be leveraged to support the regeneration and viability of town centres.

Digitalisation has increased the scope for competition in the retail sector, as reflected in the growth in online shopping and changing consumer preferences in how people shop in town centres. Sustaining physical retail outlets requires adaptation and many retailers now offer multiple sales channels to sell their goods from physical stores to social media, mobile apps and websites. Last September, we launched a new pilot online retail scheme to be delivered by Enterprise Ireland with a total fund of €1.25 million. The online retail scheme will support retail businesses of 20 employees or more which are ready to grow their business strategically online. At least 50% of the total number of grants awarded under the scheme will be prioritised for retail SMEs with their headquarters outside of County Dublin, subject to applications meeting the minimum standards. On 1 March 2019, 11 successful applicants from the first call were announced in Skibbereen and we look forward to announcing a second call later this year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In addition, I highlight local enterprise offices, LEOs, as the first-stop-shop front line service assisting in delivering business growth and jobs for the small and microenterprise sector in Dublin and all across the country, including the retail sector.

LEOs actively promote the trading online voucher scheme, TOVS, on behalf of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The scheme offers matched financial assistance of up to €2,500, along with training and advice, to micro companies of ten employees or fewer that want to establish an online presence for the first time or that wish to expand a basic existing website to incorporate a more substantive online trading capacity. From the start of the scheme in July 2014 to date, over 5,000 micro companies have availed of the scheme. Other soft supports offered by LEOs, such as training and mentoring, are applicable to the retail sector and this includes retailers employing more than ten people.

I have a fear that if we simply watch as the switch to online happens, we will end up with derelict high streets. It is happening already to varying degrees and different towns are affected in different ways. We will end up with only multinational and large retailers and no small indigenous retailers. According to Retail Ireland, the four crippling factors are labour costs, rates, insurance and rent. We cannot control all of those but the Government has levers on some. Could it look at differentiated rates? A real craft business, like the baker, butcher, candlestick maker or repairs service, could have a different rates base. Alternatively, rates could be based on volume of turnover and not just on the retail asset valuation. Currently, high streets like Grafton Street in Dublin are starting to have only mobile phone shops on them as those are the only retailers that can afford the rates and rents applying. What can we do specifically to support small retailers or, in the alternative, to create more mixed streets rather than the retail streets they have been historically?

I outlined to the Deputy the urban and rural regeneration schemes. I take the example of Ennis in my county where Parnell Street was like the streets the Deputy referred to. It was rundown and not that many people shopped there. Clare County Council applied for funding under the urban regeneration scheme and received more than €1.3 million to regenerate and reinvigorate Parnell Street in Ennis. As someone who comes from rural Ireland, I acknowledge what is happening in our towns and villages and how large multiples are taking over in our larger towns. As the Deputy pointed out, online shopping has increased and consumer habits are changing a great deal. That is why it is important for us to encourage existing retailers to go online. Governments can put all the supports they like in place to assist retailers and encourage shoppers, but in the end, it is the consumer who makes the choice. That has to be said. It is important, however, that we ensure that we re-energise rural Ireland. That is why I outlined the schemes the Government has put in place and will continue to put in place through my Department and that of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring.

I support the application of the urban and rural regeneration schemes to the centres of our towns. This is critical. Many of our 19th century towns are dying on their feet. We cannot turn back to the 19th century, but we should make sure it is not just laissez-faire with everyone shopping in the multi-storey, out-of-town shopping centre while main streets die. We need to get people back living on those streets as that will help local retailers. Those people will walk to the local shop. If the Minister of State does not have the figures, he might ask his Department to follow up with a written reply on how much of the funding allocated so far under the urban and rural regeneration schemes has been allocated for schemes like the one on Parnell Street in Ennis. I would allocate the entire fund to that one project alone. If we do not, the centres of our towns and cities will die. We should prioritise that for investment. I am keen to know how much of the total funding thus far has been applied to that purpose. It is the best form of spending as it helps local business and will get people back living in the centres of our towns and cities.

I am delighted the Deputy acknowledges the importance of the rural and urban regeneration schemes. They are very important, together with the town and village renewal scheme. Another example of urban renewal scheme is in Clare's second largest town, namely Shannon. Clare County Council applied, somewhat hastily, for funding under the urban regeneration scheme to put a heart into Shannon. As the Deputy knows, it is a new town and does not have a streetscape like other Irish towns. There is just a shopping centre in the centre of the town. The Deputy focused on town centres. It is really important to have a heart and life in the centre so people can live in town centres and in the areas outside that as well. Clare County Council did not get the funding for which it applied as the project did not live up to what the urban regeneration scheme should be as it was for a theatre. However, we received €100,000 for the project. Since then Clare County Council has met the senior development planners in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, they are developing a plan and are consulting with the locals to focus on the economic prosperity and assets of the region.

I thank the Minister of State.

A project will be designed with in-house and outside consultants. The project will be put into category 1 and the application will be made by the end of the year under the urban regeneration scheme.

I call Deputy Ryan for a final question. A lot of Members are waiting and we have to observe time.

I hope they will get money for that.

We must observe the time limits.

County Clare is a good example. Friends of mine live in Scarriff and Kilrush and these are examples I give the Minister of State of towns that are dying on their feet. Scarriff is down to a single main street retailer. The risk is that this will happen in every single Irish town, that we will be left with one multiple outlet. While these are good businesses, typically run by local families, and I do not doubt them, one cannot have a 19th century street with just one shop. What will we do with the rest of the street? It may mean putting families back into the centre, which might lead to a second shop opening because those families will walk to the shops rather than drive. That is the reality of what has happened. The Minister of State can point to the example of one project in Shannon but I can point to ten examples of towns in Clare which are dying on their feet. It is happening right across the country. A more proactive engagement on the part of the Government is required, not just with the fund under discussion, but by way of a range of policies to change the rates structure and help with rents for smaller businesses and local Irish retailers. They need support.

The Deputy mentioned two towns. Scarriff received funding under the village renewal scheme while Kilrush received funding of €1.7 million recently for the Vandeleur gardens project, which will build a showcase for craft shops etc. Clare County Council also has plans to regenerate Frances Street in Kilrush. The rural enterprise scheme also has an important contribution in re-energising our towns and villages. That is why the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, has put many projects in place under the urban regeneration scheme with millions of euro invested in counties. I have outlined the Ennis project to the Deputy but there are other places around the country which got money also. I will try to get the figures on the urban and rural renewal schemes for the Deputy. We have been trying to create an environment so we can sustain our rural towns and villages. There is no doubt that they will change given the way in which digitalisation is changing the way we do business, but the fact that we have a Minister who is working to enhance our towns and villages is a sign of the Government's commitment to them.

We will go back to Question No. 4. Deputy Mattie McGrath was held up at a committee but has now arrived.