Rates relief scheme pays out just £12,000 in 12 years
A GOVERNMENT scheme set up to provide a lifeline to small businesses in the north facing hard times has paid out less than £12,000 in 12 years.
The Hardship Relief Scheme was launched under direct rule in 2004, but has failed to live up to its promise.
It was supposed to help pay the rates bills of hard-pressed companies hit by unforeseen crises.
But despite operating for more than a decade - including through several harsh winters - it is understood only four businesses have ever benefited.
So few is the number successful applicants, a detailed breakdown of exactly how many awards have been given and when is not available.
Figures obtained by the Irish News show the initiative, administered by Land & Property Services (LPS) for the Department of Finance, has paid out just £11,201 since its inception.
The scheme was designed to help businesses cope with an unexpected crisis that resulted in a serious loss of trade or had a major effect on services.
However the programme, which does not cover normal business risks, has been criticised as being too strict, resulting in the low number of payouts.
Head of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) Glyn Roberts said the figures were "shocking".
"It really is a drop in the ocean considering the level of the problems businesses face," he said.
Mr Roberts, who is campaigning for a reformed business rates system added: "The figure proves our point, we need an urgent overhaul of rates".
"We are approaching winter once again, and there's going to be flooding without doubt, but it doesn't look like businesses will be able to avail of this help.
"Although the scheme launched more than a decade ago, it has never been any major publicity push around it.
"Even finding out about it on the LPS (Land & Property Services) website isn't easy before businesses even get around to ticking boxes on an application."
Mr Roberts said members of his organisation have complained that applications have been judged "too strictly".
"When you consider the number of incidents of flooding and major roadworks, four awards in a dozen years is shocking," he said.
"Although not as black and white as flooding, we also have examples of businesses suffering as a result of public realm schemes with some losing up to 40 per cent of sales."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Finance which administers the scheme said: “Available records show that the Hardship Relief Scheme has been awarded in less than five cases.
"The total amount of these awards was £11,201. It is not possible to provide any further detail as it may compromise personal information of individual ratepayers.”
Finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said he planned to put the initiative under review.
“The Hardship Relief Scheme was put in place by direct rule ministers to assist businesses hit by exceptional circumstances," he said.
"However, given that only a very small number of businesses have benefited from the fund I want the scheme to be reviewed to determine if the criteria are too stringent.”