A £4m scheme to reinvigorate the high streets of Northern Ireland has been welcomed by retailers.

The scheme, which is part of a £26m project that will support education, family support and job creation, was unveiled by the first and deputy first minister.

The plan is to create 10 ‘social enterprise incubation hubs’ which will encourage business start-ups to utilise empty shops throughout Northern Ireland in order to resurrect high streets and to reduce unemployment in deprived areas. The hubs will be rolled out over the next two years.

A recent report by commercial property agency Lisney found that 19% of shops in Northern Ireland are now vacant, much higher than the UK average of 11%. It also found that Belfast had a shop vacancy rate of 23.1%, more than double the UK average.

The move was welcomed by Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts. “These signature projects are very welcome and in particular the £4m to establish enterprise incubation hubs in empty shops,” said Roberts. “This is a creative and significant step in the right direction of tackling the ever-growing problem of vacant and derelict shops.”

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly also welcomed the funding but called for more to be done. “Anything that brings vacant shops back into use is very much needed,” he said. “The only way to reinvigorate town centres is for the Executive to work with the private sector.”