Besieged traders want rates freeze
City retailers demand council rebate as they count cost of flag riots
Belfast shop owners are calling for a cut or freeze on rates as their trade suffers due to the ongoing flags debacle.
With rates already a contentious issue and the downturn impacting on footfall in the city centre, retailers have warned that the drop in custom prompted by the protests could be the last straw.
Long-time Belfast landlord and shopkeeper Langley Humphreys, who owns a building on Arthur Street housing Toytown, Campbell's cafe and Centaur Gym, said rates were the "biggest threat" to the city's economy and called for their revaluation.
He said the council granted a rate-free year during the 1970s when businesses were on the brink of bankruptcy because of the Troubles.
Retailers were once again facing similar problems, he said.
"Rates levels are so high in some streets that it is impossible for shopkeepers to function," he said.
"One particular example of this being a small unit in Callender Street of 1,175 sq ft in size which demands a rate bill of £54,000 per year before any other expenses such as rent, wages or electricity are paid.
"How can anyone trade under these circumstances? The answer is they can't.
"This unit, like many others, has been vacant for over a year and is yet another empty shop in the heart of our city that will not be occupied for the foreseeable future."
Belfast pharmacist Adam Fullarton-Healey said that he would be pressing for both a rates and rent rebate.
"Businesses are being hammered and everyone I have spoken to is seriously considering withholding their rates.
"We can't go on like this. Things were bad already but the protests and the timing of the vote on flags has just made everything worse.
"It seems like Belfast City Council are just not interested in sensible business practices."
Bob McCoubrey of Mourne Seafood Bar said that his business lost around £50,000 over the festive period.
"We had a good December, but we could have had a much better one," he said.
"People weren't coming in when the big parades were happening on Saturday lunchtimes and they cancelled a lot of evening meals too."
Andrew Watson of Andrew Watson Menswear in the city centre called for a rates holiday for January, February and March, saying his trade was halved in the run-up to Christmas.
The Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce is calling for a rates 'holiday' for three months while the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIRTA) called on councils to freeze business rates across Northern Ireland, ahead of a planned shake-up from the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Unionist councillors are pressing for a cut in the rates when Belfast City Council considers the issue next month.
DUP councillor William Humphrey (left) and UUP councillor David Browne said: "In these pressing economic times, we must do all we can to protect our business sector, and creating a low-tax environment is one way of doing that."
City council had a rates freeze during Troubles£50,000
Mourne Seafood Bar's losses over festive period£54,000
Rates bill for 1,175 sq ft unit in Callender Street