Businesses 'set for big rebates' as rates row intensifies

Belfast International Airport has challenged its rates bill
Gary McDonald Business Editor

HUNDREDS of businesses in the north may be in line to reclaim tens of millions of pounds in wrongly-assessed rates in what is being labelled an "unprecedented departmental error" with a potential economic fall-out of near-RHI consequences.

Last year Land & Property Services (LPS) lost a landmark case brought by Belfast International Airport, which claimed that its annual rates valuation of £3 million from 2010 was "excessive and incorrect".

In September a lands tribunal reduced the rateable value to £2.3 million, and the airport was also awarded costs in the region of £250,000 - in total almost £1m which has to be paid back by Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council.

Now the airport is challenging its 2015 valuation of £3.8 million, which its legal advisers believe should be just £2.3 million under the same argument as the previous case, leading to a further potential rebate of £1.5m in simple terms, but by almost the same again from clawback from the business's current rate payments of £70,000 a month.

And it has emerged that even though LPS lost that previous case, and had to pay legal costs, it is sticking by its guns and insisting Belfast International must pay the full amount as per its bill.

"They are trying at every turn to delay and bully us to ensure we don't go back to the lands tribunal, but we believe they have no new argument in defence of their position," a senior source at the airport told the Irish News.

"And our experts in this area believe that the way the LPS reached its valuations may mean every property in Northern Ireland was valued wrongly and could issue a challenge. The potential cost in time and money is incalculable."

South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken, the UUP's economy spokesman, confirmed that he met the Department of Finance permanent secretary and LPS chief executive earlier this month.

Mr Aiken told the Irish News: "It's bizarre that they are considering entering a legal battle again, having lost in a tribunal last year and with absolutely no new arguments.

"They assured me the case was a one-off and that they had strong grounds to fight it this time, but I remain to be convinced."

He added: "If Belfast International Airport wins this time, there will be a case to be answered across Northern Ireland, and many others will go after them, including hospitals, schools, industrial complexes and military facilities.

"I'm genuinely perplexed that the LPS is going back to fight this, because potentially it could affect every council area in Northern Ireland."

But in response, the Department of Finance has challenged the airport's claims.

A spokesman said: “The 2017 case was an appeal against the Commissioner of Valuation's decision in respect of the BIA net annual value (NAV) of £3m. This decision dealt with the historic NAV that came to an end in March 2015. Costs are not yet agreed.

"This was not a legal challenge by BIA, but an appeal to the Lands Tribunal against the amount of the NAV. The valuation date used was not disputed as it was set out in legislation as April 2001.

"However, within the case there was a legal argument around the correct interpretation of ‘economic circumstances', and it was acknowledged by both sides that this issue would have only a modest effect on the NAV. The decision of the Lands Tribunal did not imply that the properties in the former Valuation List were incorrectly valued. The legislation dealing with this point in law was changed in 2012."

The DoF spokesman added: "The district valuer within LPS is dealing with a rating application (not a legal challenge) to review the current NAV of BIA, effective from April 2015 and based on a valuation date of April 1 2013.

"Discussions are ongoing with the agents representing BIA, so no further comment on this case can be made. LPS accepts the decision of the Lands Tribunal for Northern Ireland and the principles decided in the 2017 case.

"Revenue changes due to changes in NAV or capital values are contained within the wider annual rates finalisation (ie the difference between the rates money paid to the Council based on a pre-determined estimate and the actual rates revenue generated in any given rating year). The annual finalisation position takes account of all property movements within the council area."

Under the Rates (NI) Order 1977, any person can make an application against an entry in the valuation list at any time.

"LPS deals with such applications on a daily basis, and there are no outstanding legal challenges,” the spokesman added.

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