Belfast Telegraph

Rates relief green light vital for credit crunch survival

By John Friel

The real impact of the ongoing global economic uncertainty was made even more apparent last month with the news that unemployment in Northern Ireland has soared by almost 76% in the last year.

While the figures released were startling, the historic unemployment levels normally associated with the North West area were surpassed this time by Mid Ulster.

Indeed, Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt districts recorded the highest percentage unemployment figures in the entire UK.

The figures came just days before the FSB’s latest member survey revealed small business owners in Northern Ireland are feeling the economic recession more than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

While some commentators will argue Northern Ireland is shielded from the worst effects of the credit crunch by years of public sector investment our members surveyed painted a much more unsettling picture at the coalface.

The survey of almost 200 local respondents, conducted by the FSB’s Professor of Small Business Alistair Anderson, revealed just 43% said things were going well or had not changed for them compared to the UK average of 58%.

Meanwhile, 57% of those questioned in Northern Ireland felt their business was performing very badly in the ongoing global economic crisis compared to the UK average of 42%.

The facts and figures unveiled by the survey are shocking.

However, March was not all gloom and just last week it heralded some very welcome news for small business as, after sustained lobbying by the FSB, Automatic Rates Relief for Northern Ireland stepped closer to finally becoming reality here.

There can be no doubt businesses in Northern Ireland are under immense pressure as the recession continues to bite and many now unfortunately have to face the very real fear of unemployment or even closure.

However, the FSB has always maintained the Assembly has had the power to throw the economy a lifeline in the form of Automatic Rates Relief and we are delighted to see this is now hopefully being facilitated.

It is now more important than ever that this legislation is agreed upon and approved by the Executive, Assembly and relevant Committee to ensure this essential system is put in place and operational by April 2010.

The FSB would urge all those involved to ensure Rates Relief is facilitated as promptly as possible.

In December of last year Mr Dodds announced a series of measures aimed at addressing the economic situation in Northern Ireland including Rates Relief, something the FSB has been actively lobbying on for years.

The FSB has been campaigning long and hard for the introduction of a Rates Relief Scheme in Northern Ireland and welcome this step in the right direction to finally see it being facilitated here.

Northern Ireland is currently the only region of the UK that does not have a Small Business Rates Relief Scheme and these measures, which will ensure the Northern Ireland small business community is no longer placed at a competitive disadvantage to its counterparts in the UK, are long overdue.

Small businesses currently represent 98% of the business environment and employ just over half a million people across Northern Ireland while contributing almost 60% of the annual UK turnover.

Rates Relief will put money back into the hands of small businesses, which are best placed to know how to spend their money, and is the best way to help small businesses survive the current challenging environment.

Obviously such a scheme will take careful planning and time to properly implement and in the meantime the FSB welcomes the decision by Finance Minister Nigel Dodds to continue to freeze the non-domestic rate, benefiting small businesses by around £8m, until Rates Relief is introduced here.

John Friel, who is from Strabane, is regional chair of the Federation of Small Businesses

Belfast Telegraph