An £8 million support package is being given to local councils in Northern Ireland to help them minimise predicted hikes in rates bills, the Government has announced.
Faced with falling revenues due to the economic downturn and changes to the rate collection system, some councils claim they may have to increase charges to businesses and homeowners by as much as 15% next year.
Finance Minister Nigel Dodds said he had formulated the measures after consulting with local government representatives and Assembly members.
“This package is a proportion-|ate, necessary and affordable |response to the difficulties faced by councils next year,” he said.
The district rate accounts for around two-fifths of the total rates bill, with the regional rate set by the Executive making up the |remainder. The government has frozen the regional rate for the next three years, and councils are |facing the prospect of major rises in order to maintain services.
The credit crunch has seen fewer new properties added to the list of rateable buildings, and council revenues have fallen due to a decision to reduce the rating charges levied on the Ministry of Defence and British Telecom. This cut has been backdated for five years — a sum that was originally a one-off payment, but Mr Dodds decided to let councils spread the cost over five years.
He has also made changes to rates collection system. This includes reducing the allowance councils gave to the Housing Executive and taking out the fee councils paid for administering housing benefit.
The minister also waived a £600,000 bill for introducing new IT systems within councils. The Executive will shoulder that cost.
“I listened to the concerns put forward by councils, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and MLAs over recent weeks and I believe my decisions will deliver immediate help to councils,” he said.
Mr Dodds denied he was giving the councils a hand-out.
“It is not a bailout but responds to the fact that councils faced a number of one-off items next year that would have hit them just at the same time as they seek to manage the wider impacts of the economic downturn,” he said.
Cllr Helen Quigley, President of NILGA said: “I am pleased the minister has listened to councils’ concerns and developed a range of actions in response to NILGA’s requests.”