Belfast Telegraph

300,000 will escape new Northern Ireland councils' big rates hikes

By Noel McAdam

UP to 300,000 people are to quality for protection from massive rates hikes resulting from Northern Ireland's local councils shake-up, the Assembly has heard.

The mechanism designed to safeguard ratepayers from sudden increases when the current 26 authorities are amalgamated is to cost taxpayers £30m.

The 11 new super-councils will be able to borrow up to a further £33m from the Treasury to finance staff losses and other 'transition' costs, MLAs were told yesterday.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said it was "not surprising" that major differences in rate levels have developed between different council areas over the years.

Ratepayers in some of the existing 26 council areas were likely to experience "significant" rate increases – along with some decreases – if Stormont had not acted.

There have long been fears over huge rates increases between Fermanagh and Omagh councils, and concern over differentials in areas like Castlereagh and Belfast, but the scheme will result in a subsidy to cushion individual ratepayers.

Omagh has a large debt while Fermanagh has little or none and Castlereagh has a much lower rate than Belfast.

Questioned in the Assembly by Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan and Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane, Mr Hamilton said: "I know that it is an issue that causes great concern, probably particularly in the Fermanagh and Omagh areas, but there are issues in respect of not just mergers but boundary changes in and around the Belfast area, particularly around Castlereagh."

He rejected speculation from SF's Daithai Mackay, who chairs the committee which monitors the Finance department, that some councils may have set artificially high district rates in advance of the mergers.

Mr Hamilton said: "I do not think that there is much evidence of councils doing that this year. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, with many councils striking a zero or below inflation rate.

"I am sure that the timing of that, in an election year, is merely coincidental, but it has been done nonetheless and obviously assisted in getting round that problem."

In his statement he said the subsidies would work through adjusting district rate figures in each area for ratepayers who need protection over the next few years.

Mr Hamilton also announced his department has agreement from the Treasury for councils to borrow up to a total of £33m over a four-year period for "upfront costs" of the changes.

BACKGROUND

The Belfast Telegraph revealed last month that Northern Ireland's 11 new 'super councils' will be able to strike the rates next year – even before they take over control of local government from the present 26.

The Stormont Executive has signalled the rises should not be above inflation, but rebates will be given in areas where the new rates struck are higher.

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