Our backs are against the wall

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TOWN centre traders are calling for Coleraine Borough Council to take action on the ‘crippling’ rates burden or see more local businesses close.

Members of the Town Traders Association met at short notice in the Lodge Hotel last Thursday to discuss their deep concerns.

Present were a wide spectrum of business representatives including retailers, estate agents, beauticians and hoteliers. East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell, MLA’s and a number of councillors listened to a number of traders’ concerns and frustrations during the unrelenting economic recession.

Traders had a number of questions for Council including:

* A plea to shelve some of their non-urgent and costly projects;

* Reviewing its current astronomical spends to see what the value add is compared to actual investment and running costs;

* The need for Council business from a private sector’s perspective or will they be “hell bent on driving us into oblivion”?

One businessperson told the Times: “Lets face it, the more businesses that close the less money they will have in the pot. Or are they still in their public sector bubble and believe nothing can touch them?

“It definitely is time to batten down the hatches whether they like it or not, it is a whole new game out there and the traders are in primal survival mode.

“For Council even to consider an increase in rates this year is a no brainer, they cannot justify putting a local district increase onto rates.

“Rather, the rates should be allowed to sit still, there is nothing wrong with that in this current climate. The general public would rather hear why they made savings rather than an astronomical spend.

“And it is not as simple as putting an ‘X’ through an event as they did two years ago with the Air Show – it is sitting down and looking deeply into what projects they have and how viable they are in today’s economic situation.

“It is not acceptable the amount of monies that have been spent on the Portrush regeneration - not saying it shouldn’t happen - but there are definitely more cost effective ways of doing things and if you get it wrong then have the courage to say it is wrong, put it right, make the savings and move on.

“The Museum project, while it is dear to many people’s hearts it is not a necessity at this particular time and look how much has been spent already on the design - £400,000 and we still don’t have a museum!

“Council needs to reverse its whole thought process and thinking. We are not in good times and when good times come back then it is time to lift the projects off the shelf and work towards a new-found prosperity. “

Local MP, Gregory Campbell agreed with the traders that an urgent meeting is needed with Minister Sammy Wilson to bring forward the revaluation of properties in line with their market value.

The traders also want a meeting with Council Chief Executive, Roger Wilson, to discuss their issues.

Another trader said: “It is a well known fact that all towns across the Province are up in arms about their rateable values and local district percentage increases. In any business in this current climate you need cost savings measures time and time again and we constantly negotiate this with our suppliers.

“Council is no different, they are our supplier and need to provide value for money and if they cannot then they need to justify why – it is our money, not their money and they need to be open, transparent and fully accountable for what they spend it on.

“It is a fact that 43% of the ratepayers’ money in the Coleraine Borough is used to pay Council staff and their pensions and while everyone else who is not being made redundant is taking a paycut or pay freeze Council staff receive an increase.

“There’s also a belief that Council believes it cannot change policies handed down from Central Government, but they can – they can lobby on behalf of their community and show how and why it is not acceptable.

“Gone are the days when people have trust in their Council or Government to spend their money sensibly, so now they will be made to account for it and their decisions will be challenged.”

It was felt by the meeting that the cross party representation of councillors present did get the message but that Council officers and chiefs are not listening or fully understanding the seriousness of the traders’ plight.

“A huge gap still exists between public and private sector in Coleraine Borough and why has Coleraine Borough Council not embraced the new concept of Public Private Partnerships, the only way forward to help us all survive this recession together?”

A further meeting is expected on the issues raised by the Town Traders Association within the next fortnight.

A spokesperson for Coleraine Borough Council said: “Coleraine Borough Council is very aware of the impact that the current economic situation is having on everyone within the Borough, including the business community. “The rate struck for the financial year 2011/12 was the lowest for over 10 years and reflects the efforts that Council has been making to reduce the costs it is incurring.

“This rate also maintains Coleraine’s position as one of the lowest rated areas in Northern Ireland.”

Chief Executive Roger Wilson commented that Council is not immune to the current financial situation.

Increasing energy costs, landfill taxes and reducing income all affect service provision and Council continues to investigate ways of doing more for less.

Additionally new legislation together with functions and services transferred to Councils from the Assembly without funding continue to be an issue. He stated: “Council has made significant efforts to bring down its costs and will continue to do so, whilst at the same time enduring to continue to provide high quality services to ratepayers and visitors.

“We are working in partnership with Causeway Chamber of Commerce, Town Centre Partnership and Invest NI to develop ways to attract new businesses and visitors to Coleraine”.

He also welcomed the opportunity to meet with representatives from the Town Traders Association.

REPORT: David Rankin

PICTURES: Paul Nash