David Ford said: “I sponsored the event at Parliament Buildings for the Independent retail traders because I have serious concerns about inadequate planning guidelines in Northern Ireland.
“It is over twenty years since planning guidance in England and Wales was changed to restrict out of town shopping centres that was seen as necessary to protect small shops in existing town centres.
“I believe a healthy shopping environment requires a mixture of shops, including both major supermarkets and the independents, trading profitably in traditional town centres. Some of these will be on the high street and others in centres like the Castle Mall in Antrim.
“Places like Junction One or Ikea meet a particular regional need, but should not become replacements for the traditional town centres.
“I welcome the investment that the new owners have put into the Castle Mall over the last three years. This has made the centre more attractive to both shoppers and new businesses. It is regrettable that Easons is closing down in Antrim but this is part of a pattern which involves them closing down eight shops last year and this year. I am sorry to see a number of people losing their jobs, many after working several years with Easons. However I believe the new tenants such as O2 are showing the strength of Castle Mall and Antrim town centre.
“I believe a continued partnership between the council, Castle Mall, Junction One and other traders will ensure that Antrim grows as a shopping destination.”