“We agree wholeheartedly with the government”. This is a phrase that is probably seldom heard from campaigning groups, at least not from organisations that work seriously in the interest of those they seek to represent. The recent tax hike from the UK Government, under the auspices of funding social care in England, with ‘Barnett consequentials’ for the other nations, has brought much criticism from FSB - despite the noble intention of the policy - given its impact on businesses and workers at a time when many are only just getting back on their feet after the Covid-19 pandemic. The truth is that most policies brought forward by government have pros and cons, winners and losers, dependent on circumstances and points of view. Rarely is a policy widely acclaimed from all quarters, however, we have discovered a notable exception and, as such, it is worthy of commendation.
The High Street Voucher Scheme brought forward by the Northern Ireland Executive is something that has drawn plaudits from across the piece. The scheme seeks to provide every adult in Northern Ireland with a pre-paid card containing £100 with a very clear mission statement; spend it! The policy intent of the scheme is not to provide individuals with some extra pocket money but, rather, to provide vital stimulus to those businesses with a physical presence that have been hardest hit during the pandemic. Other than excluding online purchases, there are few limitations as to how the card can be used, as the purpose is to support local ‘bricks and mortar’ businesses. Despite the degree of freedom that the voucher provides, FSB is urging people to ‘Spend Small’ where possible, using their £100 to support independent businesses that have borne some of the worst of the economic brunt of the pandemic and lockdown. By choosing to spend small, every individual has the ability to make the greatest difference to communities right across Northern Ireland.
The scheme is due to open to applications in the coming days and we are encouraging everyone who is eligible to make sure they apply. The NI Direct website has details about the application process. For those who may feel that they do not need the £100 that the scheme offers, we still very much encourage them to take up the offer because of the benefit it can provide to local businesses. In such circumstances, one suggestion would be to buy £100 of items from an independent business and donate them to charity, as this would still provide the economic stimulus that the scheme intends, as well as benefiting the charity.
While the High Street voucher will provide a welcome short-term stimulus, it is not the basis for longer term sustenance. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated changes that were already underway, in terms of our relationship with the High Street. The High Street Taskforce, on which FSB is represented, was established as a collaboration between all levels of government, political parties and business to identify policy solutions to rectify some of the issues, with a medium to long-term focus. It met in plenary session again last week, and while it won’t necessarily provide a cure for all ills, the initial signs are cautiously hopeful that it can come up with a suite of policy recommendations to address some of the entrenched issues. The report should be in place for the new Executive to take up in 2022. Too often, noteworthy plans and strategies are left to gather dust or become victims of political paralysis. Given the necessity to rejuvenate our High Streets across Northern Ireland, it is vital that the Executive takes on board the Task Force’s recommendations and is serious about effecting change. While consumer choice and how businesses respond are the major determinants in our economic landscape, the policy environment set by government can make a real contribution to having thriving, diverse and sustainable High Streets for us all to enjoy and for businesses to prosper in.
This is a job of work for the future but, in the meantime, I would encourage everyone to do their bit to support the High Street, and ‘spend small’ with the High Street Voucher in the weeks ahead.