Proposals to rebalance the rates burden show the Executive recognises the need to rejuvenate the local economy, says Wilfred Mitchell, policy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses
The FSB has long championed the virtues of the small business rates relief (SBRR) scheme and we were encouraged by the Finance Minister's commitment to introduce it in April 2010 after hard lobbying by the FSB.
Prior to this, Northern Ireland was the only region of the UK without such a system and, recognising the need for the establishment of one, the federation made it a priority issue to ensure this legislation was put in place in the province as soon as possible.
Of course, this didn't happen overnight and, in fact, took several years to bring to fruition.
During this time the FSB played an instrumental role in achieving the introduction of the new system through an extensive campaign of lobbying, meeting with ministers, surveying members and researching the most cost-effective and fair model of rates relief to implement.
When Finance Minister Sammy Wilson unveiled the scheme in the spring of 2010 we were delighted to see that many of our recommendations were included in the legislation and around 8,000 small firms were to benefit from it to the tune of an estimated £8m at least, and possibly as much as £16m.
However, we did not rest on our laurels and quickly sprung back into action and began calling for the scheme to be extended further to include even more small businesses by increasing the net annual value (NAV) thresholds.
In this context, the action by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) last week in launching a consultation on proposals to extend SBRR in Northern Ireland to even more small businesses is highly welcome.
In a time of extraordinarily difficult budgeting for the Executive, this is an imaginative proposal that is largely cost-neutral to the Assembly and sees a rebalancing of the rates burden from the largest shops towards the essential typical business sector of Northern Ireland.
The FSB believes this consultation sends out a message loud and clear that the Executive recognises the importance of the local small business sector and the vital role it plays in helping to rejuvenate the economy.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of the local economy, employing tens of thousands of people.
In fact, due to the proliferation of these firms across the province, Northern Ireland has the highest concentration of small businesses of all the regions in the UK, representing 99.9% of all businesses here and providing employment for around half a million people.
The facts and figures speak for themselves - small businesses are very big business in Northern Ireland.
They drive the local economy and provide the foundation that it is based on.
Perhaps even more importantly, it is these firms that, with the right conditions in place, will ensure the growth and development of the economy in the years to come, but in the current climate many of them are vulnerable and have little cushioning.
This explains why SBRR is an essential component of this package of conditions and we welcome the Finance Minister's recognition of the need to ensure more small firms are supported through it.
We are very pleased to see his continued support for small businesses and believe the extension of this legislation will provide even more small businesses with some much-needed working capital, allowing them to continue to invest in growing their businesses and creating jobs. Increasing SBRR will positively encourage more potential small and medium business owners to enter the market and allow existing small firms to expand and grow further and create greater opportunities for more people to enter into employment.
This is good for everyone in Northern Ireland.