Rates relief hopes dashed

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who addressed members of Coleraine Borough Traders Association on Wednesday evening.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who addressed members of Coleraine Borough Traders Association on Wednesday evening.

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COLERAINE traders desperate for a cut in business rates have had their hopes dashed by DUP Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson.

During a meeting with Coleraine Borough Traders’ Association last week, the Stormont Minister told business owners there was no more money in the pot to finance cuts.

And he warned that shopkeepers could actually end up paying more of the regional rate as other businesses fail during the continuing economic crisis.

Sammy Wilson MLA was invited to the Wednesday evening meeting by local traders to answer questions on non-domestic regional rates, which are set by Stormont and added to Coleraine Council’s district rate.

The Minister was responding to an introduction by chartered surveyor, Richard McLaughlin, from McAfee Commercial who complained that rates had not kept pace with commercial property rents which had dropped by as much as 60% since the recession.

Mr. McLaughlin explained that rates were still being assessed using 2001 valuations and called on the Minister to bring forward a planned national revaluation, currently delayed to 2015.

This was dismissed immediately by the Finance Minister who explained that Stormont expected to raise a set amount of money from rates which meant even if valuations were halved, the rate poundage would need to be doubled to bring in the same money.

“Many people think if commercial rental values fall by 50% then rates will also fall by 50%. The rateable valuation is based on a budgetary target – if rateable valuations were to go down by half, the amount you pay will simply double,” he said.

“I don’t want to play down the difficulties faced by families and businesses in Northern Ireland... but we always tend to see the difficulties and the bad things that are happening when there a lot of optimistic things happening as well.”

First blaming the media for talking down the market, the Minister also castigated “some” local authorities who, he believed, had used his department’s rates’ freeze to cover-up their own increases.

He went on: “I recognise the pressures there are on businesses in Northern Ireland and with the limited powers that we have in the Executive, we have tried to alleviate some of those pressures.

“There is a £300 million reduction in resources within the Executive but we have frozen the regional rate until 2015. This is a budget commitment that we have made - and not without some pain,” he revealed.

A proposal to increase the small business relief scheme’s threshold from a £5,000 rateable valuation up to £10,000, was another measure designed to support vulnerable small businesses, but only for the duration of this recession.

The Minister acknowledged businesses in administration do not pay any rates but property repossessed by banks is subject to 50 per-cent rates if they own the premises.

When a town centre retailer proposed he be allowed use an adjoining empty shop’s window to display his goods, he was told the empty shop would become liable for 100 per-cent of the commercial rates being levied, under existing guidelines. There is a possibility that the guidelines might change under a rates consultation process which concludes mid October.

Mr Wilson encouraged commercial ratepayers to submit all or any ideas to his department within the next fortnight about how best the Stormont executive can levy the regional rate on Northern Ireland’s business community.

Speaking after the meeting DUP alderman, James McClure, welcomed the Minister’s visit and urged ratepayers to support the local economy by shopping in their own area.

“Rates continue to be a heavy burden on many business people,” he said. “At a time when the downturn is still hitting local business hard, every assistance is important and that is why I believe it is vital that we hammer home the message of supporting the local economy by buying locally.”

REPORT: JEFF WHYTE