Belfast Telegraph

Big stores furious as Assembly passes levy

By Clare Weir

A tax on large stores which has already prompted two household names to threaten to cut their Northern Ireland operations has been passed in the Assembly.

One trade body has said that the large retail levy, which passed its final stage in the Assembly yesterday and is due to come into force in April, will damage Northern Ireland's potential to attract investment and will stop job growth.

Tesco's opposition to the levy sparked a war of words with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who brought forward the legislation - which aims to raise the rates of 76 of our biggest multiple retail stores to pay for rates relief for smaller traders.

After Tesco's corporate affairs director David North warned that the firm could cut its planned creation of 1,500 jobs and £100m investment in the province over the next three years if the tax came into force, the minister told the Assembly the comments were "pathetic", "bluffing" and "bullying".

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), which speaks on behalf of giants like Tesco, Ikea and Asda, said that the levy is "flawed" and will damage future economic prosperity here.

B-amp;Q has said it might be forced to pull out of Northern Ireland if the levy was imposed, while an Asda spokesman said that the tax would make Northern Ireland less attractive for investors.

Ikea said that its stores in the rest of the UK of similar size to the outlet in Belfast pay lower rates than they do in Northern Ireland.

The NIRC claimed that the levy would equate to the loss of around 400 retail jobs a year, while Tesco contended that the figure would be around 1,500 over three years.

NIRC spokeswoman Jane Bevis said that she was "disappointed" by the decision to enact the levy.

"While we support the improvements made in an effort to ensure the funds raised reach the most deserving businesses, it remains a levy which unfairly discriminates against one part of one sector," she said. "Major retailers with the potential to grow, invest and create jobs are being penalised for being successful."

But Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association boss Glyn Roberts said that the legislation is good news for small traders who struggle to pay their bills.

"Given that over 1000 small shops closed in 2011 and with the likelihood of many more this year, this Rate Relief Scheme is a sensible response," he said.

The Federation of Small Businesses called the extension to the Small Business Rates Relief scheme a much-needed boost.