Northern Ireland landlords may pay the price for empty units
New rules to penalise the owners of empty retail units could be the answer to saving town centres like Carryduff, a Belfast MLA has claimed.
Sinn Fein South Belfast MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir said he was championing legislation that would mean landlords would be penalised for leaving town centre buildings empty for extended periods of time.
Under the plans, property owners would no longer be exempt from paying rates on buildings because roof tiles had been removed - as is currently the case.
It follow news that Carryduff Shopping Centre - one of Northern Ireland's oldest - is on the brink of closure.
Hairdresser Keith Kane, the last retailer on the mall, will leave his salon on Saturday as he relocates elsewhere.
Mr O Muilleoir said: "Developers are sitting on these key city centre sites, some of which have been lying vacant for seven or eight years. Some of them pay no rates on them.
"The Sirocco Works, for example, is a key city centre site of around 16 acres which is lying derelict with no rates paid on it, whereas someone with an empty shoe shop has to pay more.
"There needs to be some incentive to encourage regeneration and encourage developers to bring the sites back into use. If there's no incentive they will just continue to sit on the empty sites rather than do anything with them."
He added: "The rates burden is high here, but if we share it around those in control of large, key, vacant sites, it would be fairer for everyone."
Mr O Muilleoir is proposing that rates are paid on a sliding scale, increasing the longer a site lies vacant.
The well-known south Belfast businessman said the proposed rates legislation was needed to "ensure the wealthy pay their way".
The MLA said the case of Carryduff Shopping Centre, where part of the roof has been removed, showed the "urgent need" for legislation which would levy rates on derelict buildings and sites.
"Banks which own vast assets in the form of valuable sites and derelict buildings - often as a result of businesses going into administration - should be sharing the rates burden with the rest of the business sector," he said.
"It's my conviction that by levying rates on derelict commercial premises and building sites, we can spur economic activity."
The Department of Finance and Personnel is currently carrying out a review of business rates. Mr O Muilleoir added: "It's my hope that we can start the process, to be continued in the next mandate, of making sure the largest landowners sitting on derelict but productive assets make a contribution to the services the rest of the business sector is paying for."
Award-winning hairdresser Keith Kane had run his business at the centre for 28 years but said he now feels forced to move. He is reopening on Thursday, April 7, at the Cyril Johnston Complex at Woodlawn where he hopes to open a hair academy and millinery shop.
Carryduff Shopping Centre was opened in the late 1980s. A planning application by owners Causeway Asset Management - part of developer Paddy Kearney's business - to demolish the centre and redevelop the site into 48 houses and retail space is still under consideration.