Adults in Northern Ireland are being handed free shopping vouchers as part of a £145m plan to breathe life back into high streets scarred by lockdown closures.
Gordon Lyons, the country’s economy minister, said everyone aged 18 and over would be eligible to receive a prepaid card to spend in local shops and restaurants.
“It would mean up to 1.4 million people would have an extra £100 each to spend on our high streets rather than online,” said Lyons. “This uplift was what our local businesses needed and deserved … to bring many more customers back through their doors.”
The scheme, which starts in September, is based on similar initiatives in Jersey and Malta and is a “helicopter money” policy, a term used by economists to describe doling out cash to households to stimulate spending. The US government has similarly been handing out $1,400 stimulus cheques as part of its Covid response.
Since last year the Resolution Foundation, the influential thinktank, has been calling on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to consider handing out shopping vouchers to British shoppers. The British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) is among those backing a petition calling for a ‘shop out to help out’ scheme to assist shopkeepers in getting back on their feet.
Sunak, however, is thought to believe there is adequate financial firepower for consumer spending after British households amassed savings worth nearly £200bn during lockdown.
Bricks-and-mortar retailers had been struggling to make ends meet before the health crisis as fewer shoppers visited their local parades and malls, and business rates increased. The lockdowns then accelerated the move towards online shopping.
Retail NI, the trade body which represents independent retailers, described the shopping voucher scheme as a “win-win for members and our high streets”.
“It will be a significant spending boost for struggling independent retailers as we progress down the long road towards recovery,” said Glyn Roberts, its chief executive. He said that 70p in every pound spent with an independent store is recycled around the economy, supporting local producers, farmers and manufacturers.
“It is vital that consumers make a special effort to spend this prepaid card with local traders to ensure the widest possible boost to our economy,” he said.
Applications for the prepaid card will be checked against the electoral register, and Lyons urged adults who were not registered to vote to do so now.
The decision to launch the card in September was based on research that indicated autumn was the best time to stimulate spending in town and city centres.
“The results of the consumer panel showed that there is evidence that the scheme will encourage shoppers back on the high street, to support local independent businesses and spend their card in those sectors that have faced difficulties trading in the past year,” said Lyons. Many respondents said it would encourage them to visit physical locations.