Belfast rates rise ends three-year freeze
Bitter exchanges in chamber as council votes in favour of a 1.48% hike
Belfast City Council has voted through the first increase to its district rate in four years amid acrimony.
For the previous three years, councillors had agreed to freeze the rate - but last night they voted to increase it by 1.48%.
However, there were bitter exchanges between unionists and the Alliance Party, and a split in the SDLP before the vote was taken.
Last night's vote followed an Ulster Unionist Party motion to freeze the rate for the fourth year in a row.
But the UUP motion was found to be not competent because it was not accompanied by detailed, amended costings.
Speaking in support of the rate increase, Sinn Fein group leader Jim McVeigh pointed out the proposed 1.48% increase was lower than the rate of inflation, while Alliance group leader Michael Long said it amounted to around 12p per household per week.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers opened the debate, telling the council he believed the district rates in Belfast were "far too high".
Mr Long challenged Mr Rodgers over how the council could cope with no increase to the district rate in the next financial year, and asked the City Hall veteran whether the UUP had costed its amendment.
Mr Rodgers said his party had not prepared costings.
At this stage, Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie issued advice that the council would not have a competent budget for the 2016/17 financial year if it did not increase the district rate.
Mr McVeigh confirmed his party would support a rate increase, and detailed some of the work the council had done, including its investment plan to help boost the city's economy.
He accused Mr Rodgers and the UUP of "grandstanding". "What services would he not invest in? What services would he cut?" he queried.
Mr Long warned that without a rate increase, more bin collections could be reduced to monthly lifts.
Both the UUP and Alliance accused each other of electioneering.
DUP group leader Brian Kingston said his party felt the council could have done more in terms of cost-cutting, to create enough savings to freeze the rate again.
However, he announced his party would be abstaining in the vote.
The DUP, along with its former member Ruth Patterson, and the PUP councillors all abstained.
Sinn Fein, Alliance and most of the SDLP group voted for the increase.
Only the UUP councillors, People Before Profit councillor Gerry Carroll and SDLP councillor Declan Boyle voted against.
Following the vote, the council said that because the rate increase is below the rate of inflation, it represents a cut in real terms.
It is also less than the regional rate, which the Northern Ireland Executive has set at 1.7%, in line with inflation.
The effect on Belfast ratepayers will, on average, amount to an extra 33p per month for terraced houses, 50p for three bedroom semi-detached houses, and £1.12 for four bedroom detached homes.
The business sector will see an on average increase of £8.67 per month for offices and £8.46 for retail.
A spokesman said to have not raised the rate would have left Belfast City Council with an immediate budget deficit of £2.1m, given that it faces costs beyond its control, such as National Insurance changes.
"Following three years of a rates freeze, Belfast City Council has reduced the burden on ratepayers by around 6.8% in real terms over the period, while at the same time maintaining high standard services, investing in the city and facilities, as well as undertaking initiatives designed at growing the local economy and creating new businesses and jobs," he explained.
"Tonight's decision comes after careful consideration and consultation with Belfast City Council's financial experts.
"The Council believes it is acting responsibly and in the best interests of its ratepayers and for the overall benefit of the city.
"The aim is to ensure good long term financial planning by keeping Belfast City Council's operating budget as low as possible, but also delivering on its obligation to provide a high level service."