'Freeze our rates to avert a crisis' say business groups

The three business groups have jointly written to Belfast City Council and the north's other 10 councils asked for a freeze on business rates from next year
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland's retail, hospitality and manufacturing sectors have united to demand zero business rates for next year, insisting: "We're in crisis here."

The chief executives of Retail NI, Hospitality Ulster and Manufacturing NI - Glyn Roberts, Colin Neill and Stephen Kelly respectively - are jointly writing to the north's 11 local councils, demanding that members' rates are frozen in 2019.

Ahead of the councils' number crunchers sitting down to consider what level to set business rates at in next year's budget, they insist now is not the right time to lump further cost on their beleaguered sectors.

Their united voice following an announcement in last week's Budget which gave independent retailers and hospitality businesses in England and Wales a third off their rate bills - while their counterparts in Northern Ireland got nothing.

Stephen Kelly said: "There's currently a revaluation of more than 75,000 business properties under way, including shops, offices and factories, to calculate future rates bills.

"That's a scientific process which will ensure the rating system is more up to date, and there's little businesses can do about that.

"But the business rate poundage is down to the councils, and that's where we're pleading to them to take our plight into consideration."

The rateable value of a business property is worked out using its net annual value (NAV), an assessment of the annual rental value that the property could reasonably be let for at a fixed point in time.

The NAV is then multiplied by the 'rate in the pound' to produce the annual bill.

Glyn Roberts said: "Northern Ireland is lagging behind the rest of the UK on rates relief. Rates here having been running at three times higher than many parts of Britain for the last 10 years.

"Why on earth are England and Scotland getting a third off their rates and we're getting nothing? It's scandalous."

And he warned: "If Northern Ireland is preceded with a reputation of having the UK's highest rates, it puts up at a severe disadvantage as regards foreign direct investment.

"In the limited powers they have, the Councils can act on striking the regional rate.

"The members of all three of our organisations are experiencing huge uncertainty with Brexit, rising costs of running their business and slow economic growth, and as the process of non-domestic rates-setting begins, we're saying it's the least councils can do to give businesses a bit of a break."

The letter to mayors and chairs acknowledges that the 11 Councils are key players in economic development, and they say that want to strengthen their relationship with them going forward.

“But rates reform is absolutely critical to the future of the economy - more so now than corporation tax," the three groups say in their letter.

"In our joint New Deal document we call for a radical reduction in business rates to support our town and city centres and to ensure small business owners can reinvest more of their own money into growing their business and employing more staff.”

At a reception at Westminster earlier this year attended by more than 200 MPs, peers, diplomats and business owners, the three business groups asked that the £300 million earmarked to fund corporation tax to have been originally in place for April this year to be reinvested in skills, infrastructure and in a radical extension of the small business rate relief scheme.

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