While I am on the Board of Directors of BID and practice locally as a solicitor these views are entirely my own.

AS THE community struggles to cope with the severe challenges of the coronavirus and a third lockdown, it may be an opportunity to examine how we do things and whether a focus on change is needed to enable Enniskillen to survive and thrive as a location in which to live, work and do business.

The difficulties in the High Street are compounded by the sale of the Arcadia Group, and the closure of Top Shop, with the attendant loss of employment.

The assets of Top Shop – but not the chain of stores – have been bought by the online retailer, Asos, which will therefore not be paying business rates to anyone.

An unintended consequence of the Coronavirus has been the surge in online shopping.

Traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers have also taken the opportunity to develop an online presence and thus helped to future-proof their business.

Only at the end of this lockdown will we get a clear picture of how many business casualties there have been.

New thinking

There will be new thinking, and it may be along the following lines.

• The traditional funding mechanism for councils of applying business rates must change.

As shown above, even the strongest of High Street brands may go entirely online, and the consequence would be fewer and fewer businesses paying business rates.

Rates could be linked to turnover, and online traders must be made to carry the burden.

If the revenue from business rates is reduced, domestic rates could increase to compensate

This would be a very unpopular measure.

• The amount which the Council seeks year-on-year to raise from the public seems to be based on whatever amount of money is required annually, and not what is available.

The costs of running the Council have increased alarmingly. In 2012, the old Fermanagh District Council had 300 full-time employees, and 65 part-timem generating a wage-bill of £9.5m.

In 2019, the new Council employed a total of 922 mainly full-time employees, with a wage-bill of £25m.

There were 27 employees who earned £50,000 or more, and seven earning £80,000 or more, with 18 per cent contribution to pension funds.

Most councillors seem indifferent to the rate-setting process, which used to be their most important function.

It appears that any discussions concerning the setting of a rate are to take place in private, which seems entirely undemocratic.

• An increase in VAT would probably be a fairer levy, and could replace lost Government revenue.

• There are too many empty buildings in our towns, and the Government should look at penalising those property owners who are content to let their buildings lie empty or fall into disrepair.

• Planning and Building Control regulations have become too restrictive and expensive.

Conditions should be made easier for those seeking to occupy buildings for shorter terms, change of use, and generally allow those young entrepreneurs who have good ideas but maybe not much capital to flourish.

• Focus on increasing the number of people living in the centre of our towns.

Provide attractive grants to change certain buildings to a residential use.

Think of the advantages to shops, pubs and restaurants if 500-1,000 more people lived in town.

• The councillors and Council Executive are underperforming and need to lead the community in creative thinking and vision for the future of this area.

Councillors need to focus more on holding the Executive to account, and providing value for money in spending to improve our lives.

• There is a tremendous opportunity to develop the natural resources of County Fermanagh, but infrastructure needs investment for our roads and, yes, why not look at rail travel again!

The Irish government has ring-fenced funding to develop an Enniskillen-Sligo Greenway, but it needs a buy-in from Stormont.

The First Minister was previously involved in this project, and should engage again.

• Lastly, in case we hear that there is no money available, the Executive has been handed back £300 million by Departments who can’t spend the money provided by the Chancellor.

Despite the personal loss and hardships suffered by the community, there is also room for optimism, and it is time to look forward.