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Coronavirus: Business groups give Budget a cautious welcome but call for more support over rates

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Conor Murphy

Conor Murphy

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

The Finance Minister has been urged to go further to help firms recover from the impact of Covid-19 by introducing a 12-month holiday from rates.

In his 2020/21 Budget, Conor Murphy said Northern Ireland would have £912m for the fight against coronavirus.

Around £639m of the sum has already been allocated and around £100m will be used to fund a three-month rates holiday for businesses.

But there was disappointment that the three-month hiatus was not extended to a year, as is the case for retail and hospitality firms in England.

Other measures to help households cope with the impact of the virus include freezing the regional element of the domestic rate.

First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the Budget and its measures to help business, saying: "We are determined to do more in this area".

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Conor Murphy

Conor Murphy

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Conor Murphy

Mr Murphy said he had also reduced business rates by 12.5% - bringing a total reduction in rates of 18% when combined with the impact of Reval 2020, through which rateable values of commercial properties were reassessed.

The Finance Minister said the reduction would "help with the economic recovery on the other side of this pandemic".

Facing these challenges when society returns to normality within the funding we have available will require long-term planning, innovative thinking and difficult decisions Andrew Webb, economist

He also renewed small business rates relief and the rural ATM scheme, which brought rates relief for ATMs in rural areas but had been suspended.

There was a real-terms increase for all government departments of 8.1% to £12.2bn in resource spending - the biggest increase in about 10 years.

But Andrew Webb, the chief economist of business advisory firm Grant Thornton, said difficult questions remained.

"The many budgetary challenges that existed before the coronavirus changed everything - massive infrastructure deficits, increasing demands on health care, and struggling schools - remain to be addressed" he said.

"Facing these challenges when society returns to normality within the funding we have available will require long-term planning, innovative thinking and difficult decisions."

The budget also allocated £1.6bn in capital funding, of which £847m is for ministers to allocate to high-priority projects. Some £278.6m will go to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for farm support payments to replace EU support.

In addition £558m will be given to the Department for Infrastructure and £295m to the Department of Health.

Mr Murphy said the Budget had ultimately been "overshadowed by the unprecedented public health crisis we face". "There is no doubt that we remain in a challenging financial environment. Protecting lives and livelihoods from this pandemic is the Executive's number one priority," he explained.

The Department of Health also receives £1m for the contaminated blood inquiry, while a further £37.5m goes to the historical institutional abuse inquiry.

PwC NI tax director Craig Harrison said the measures would be welcomed by the business community, but added: "Any who hoped to hear of an extension to the three-month non-domestic rates holiday will be disappointed. It is important for Northern Ireland's future economic recovery that this is levelled up with the more generous 12-month break seen in other parts of the UK."

Angela McGowan, the CBI Northern Ireland director, said many companies would breathe a sigh of relief at the cut in business rates but added that a 12-month rates break may ultimately be needed.

Dr Patrice Cairns, policy manager at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors here, also said a longer rates holiday was required and suggested a period of at least six months. "Many high streets were struggling before coronavirus hit and will need extra help in the period when it is over," he added.

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, welcomed the minister's decisions to restore rate relief on rural ATMs as well as the cuts in the regional rate and the renewal of the small business rates relief scheme. But he reiterated that a longer period of rates holiday was required.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said a year's break would be needed if high streets were to "weather the storm" of coronavirus.

Belfast Telegraph