Northern Ireland retail boss in call for urgent reform of business rates to keep shop doors open
Retailers will continue closing shops unless there is "urgent and fundamental" rates reform, it has been claimed.
It comes after Pizza Boutique owner James Neilly announced he is pulling out of Belfast city centre as early as next month, blaming the move on a £25,000 rates bill and the impact on trade of the devastating Primark blaze last August.
And the owner of a bakery in Antrim said it had made the painful decision to fold after one year of battling tough trading conditions.
The shutters of the Sugar Cloud Bakery came down for the last time on Saturday.
However, the celebration cakes side of the business will still be operated from the owners' home in the town.
"It was not an easy decision to close the High Street shop and many a tear has been shed," the owners wrote on social media.
"But high streets are not for the faint hearted."
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They blamed steep overheads which required long trading hours and an unhealthy work-life balance.
Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts said he was acutely aware of the difficulties facing traders who cannot afford to pay "excessive" rates bills, particularly Belfast businesses affected by the Primark fire.
"We are working hard to ensure that all eligible businesses get access to hardship relief," he said.
"But excessive rates is the number one issue for our members because it is literally killing businesses.
"The entire process needs urgent and fundamental reform."
Mr Neilly previously posted a copy of his £25,000 rates bill on Twitter, claiming the hefty sum - which includes over £14,000 from a previous period - is double his annual rent.
The owner of the Castle Street eatery, which opened in 2017, has since been in talks with Department of Finance permanent secretary Sue Gray.
"This is the rates bill for a business that turns over less than 3k per week," he told her on social media.
"Back in business relief denied. No reduction for Primark fire. No surprise we are closing."
The Department of Finance said Land and Property Services (LPS) had been and is continuing to support businesses affected by the fire and had recently met the Pizza Boutique owner.
"A follow-up meeting to discuss available support has been arranged," it added.
It also encouraged businesses to apply to the Hardship Rate Relief Scheme.
But Mr Roberts expressed "anger and frustration" over the absence of government here, which he said prevents any solution to "antiquated" business rates.
"We requested legislation for small business rates relief, but then the Assembly fell," he said.
"This is a huge drag on the economy and affects every city, town and village.
"The Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced small business rates by a third in his last Budget but our Secretary of State increased rates."