'Root and branch reform' needed for the north's business rates system

Business bodies in the north have called for change to the rating system
Ryan McAleer

LEADING business bodies in the north have called for real reform of the rating system as an extensive consultation process came to a close on Monday.

A major review of business rates was announced by the Department of Finance's permanent secretary Sue Gray in May.

The retail sector in particular have been calling for urgent change to the way rates are collected in order to slow the decline of high streets across the north.

As the two-month consultation closed last night, the new chief executive of Belfast Chamber, Simon Hamilton warned that piecemeal solutions and outdated responses would not help to address the real challenges facing the local economy.

The former politician, who previously held the Finance Ministry for two years, was speaking as Belfast Chamber submitted its detailed response to Sue Gray's department.

Among its proposals is a high street regeneration fund and additional support for new businesses. Belfast Chamber also said that the value of charities and the cultural sector to local economies should be recognised, while urban living and tourism should be stimulated.

“A recent survey revealed 94 per cent our members believe the current rating system to be unfair, especially those in the retail,” said Mr Hamilton.

“In Northern Ireland, retailing accounts for 12 per cent of the local economy, but pays about a quarter of all rates levied.

“There must be root and branch reform to redress the seriously damaging imbalances in the current rating system,” he said.

The north's largest business body has also proposed new measures to help the economy.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has called for the small business rate relief scheme to become permanent and enhanced.

Start-up relief for new businesses is also included in its submission to the Department of Finance.

Roger Pollen of the FSB said the system needed to move from being “regressive and disproportionate”, towards “fairness and continuous improvement”.

He said: “The first thing policymakers must do is embed the small business rate relief scheme permanently, rather than it being subject to review each year, causing needless uncertainty. The loss of this relief would lead to the doubling of rates to the smallest businesses.

“Given that the Northern Ireland block grant has received significant additional funding in recent years as a result of further rates relief in England, the small business rate relief scheme should also be enhanced to reflect this, rather than being used to fund other pressures.”

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