Belfast Telegraph

Mairtin O Muilleoir: Modernisation of Northern Ireland's rates system will help generate jobs and boost high street

By Mairtin O Muilleoir

Yesterday at the Assembly I announced a wide-ranging package of proposals aimed at modernising the rating system with the biggest potential shake-up in a generation.

A Rates Rethink: Spurring Economic Growth includes a £22m investment in retail and hospitality businesses, the introduction of two pilot business empowerment zones and removal of the domestic rates cap.

I want to make sure that the rates system encourages regeneration, investment and entrepreneurship, while at the same time discourages dereliction and decline.

Rates are a vital source of public revenue, supporting schools, hospitals and other essential services. The proposed changes to the non-domestic system are based on consultation feedback and the findings of the Economic Policy Centre at the Ulster University.

Along with our emerging Programme for Government, this has helped shape the wide-ranging package I am putting forward.

I am announcing a ground-breaking approach to partnering local hospitality and retail businesses by directing a £22m stimulus towards those sectors, which are key to the survival of our town and city centres.

This will increase the average award for eligible businesses to two-and-a-half times the current levels under the small business rate relief scheme.

The introduction of business empowerment zones in east and west Belfast at a cost of £1m on a pilot basis shows we are willing to try bold new approaches to rebuild working-class areas, requiring joined-up approaches across government and with business organisations.

In terms of other regeneration measures, I propose a new scheme to incentivise conversion from commercial to residential occupation by providing a rates incentive for the first occupiers of newly converted premises in our town and city centres. This will encourage people to live in these areas and bring life back to our urban spaces.

I also want to increase the empty property rates for commercial properties from 50% to 75% to encourage the letting of empty premises and increase economic activity.

For charity shops, it is important to get the balance right, recognising their contribution and the need for a mixed use of units in our high streets.

I propose that we therefore consider starting to charge charity shops at a rate not above that in Scotland, Wales and England, which is 20%.

In the domestic sector I believe that those who can afford to contribute to the rating system should do so.

However, the application of a £400,000 cap means that those in houses with a higher value pay proportionately less than those in middle or lower value homes.

I want to see a more proportionate contribution, while safeguarding elderly pensioners on low incomes who have remained in high value family homes.

The changes I have put forward today are driven by a need to increase the fairness of the system and a better and more strategic targeting of reliefs to support social and economic development.

Taken together, they will also lead to an additional £16m for the Executive's coffers and £10m for councils - money which will help deliver better public services.

I recognise the decisions on the package cannot be made by me alone.

I have further consultation to undertake, and will be looking to the finance committee, Assembly and Executive to help me progress these policies through to implementation.

While the issues may be difficult, I think the set of measures establishes a good basis for moving forward to modernise the rating system - one that will support our public services, generate more jobs and boost our town centres and high streets.

Belfast Telegraph