Business

High rates making thousands of Belfast businesses ineligible for Covid aid' - Hamilton

Only 6 per cent of businesses in Belfast are physically open right now, a Stormont committee has been told
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE higher rateable value of many businesses in Belfast city centre is denying them eligibility for various government aid packages, with just a third being supported, a Stormont committee has heard.

And according to Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Hamilton, a mere 6 per cent of businesses in the city remain physically open.

He told an economy committee economy meeting that footfall is unlikely to pick up to anywhere near pre-coronavirus levels for some time to come, insisting that businesses will need ongoing support to help them through the crisis.

The government's £10,000 grant is intended for small businesses with rateable values of £1,590 or below while a £25,000 grant supports businesses in the retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors.

But the city’s relatively high rateable value has left some businesses ineligible for support, and 83 per cent have been furloughing staff, which Mr Hamilton said has sent “ripples” around other parts of Northern Ireland.

His comments came as Fermanagh and Omagh District Council became the first local authority in the north to furlough non-essential staff, after admitting a reduction in income has impacted its ability to pay wages and salaries.

Its chair Siobhán Currie said: “There is a very significant financial burden on councils as a result of Covid-19, particularly in the context of loss of income from closed centres and facilities.

“The income from funding received under the Job Retention Scheme will help to mitigate the loss of income.”

Mr Hamilton said the impact of Covid-19 on Belfast has been significant.

The city accounts for 30 per cent of all jobs in the north, produces a quarter of the total rates take, and generates half of out-of-state visitor spending.

The jobs furlough scheme, which has seen the government pay tens of thousands of workers’ wages, is due to be wound down next month but Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said it will not be a cliff-edge halt.

Colm Shannon, chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce & Trade, said the extension of business rates relief and the jobs furlough scheme is important.

“Some form of extension of furlough would be vital because businesses will be starting at a different scale than they were in March,” he said.

“Many will be trying to rebuild their market share and many will not be in profit.”

DUP committee member Christopher Stalford said he has seen more traffic on the roads.

“Fatigue is starting to set in with the public – you only have to look at the routes around Belfast to see that.

“I think more people will abide by it if they get a sense of when it will end.”

A Department for the Economy spokesman said it recognised the ongoing impact of the pandemic crisis on businesses.

“For those businesses that do not meet the criteria required for the Business Support Grant Schemes, there is a range of further support available including the three-month business rates holiday for all Northern Ireland businesses and UK-wide level support including the Coronavirus Business Interruption Schemes, Bounce Back Loan Scheme and Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme,” he said.

“The department operates the grant schemes on the same basis throughout Northern Ireland and the approach to using rateable values is consistent with the rest of the UK.”

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