Real reforms to business rates are needed, says Belfast Chamber chief Simon Hamilton
Former Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has warned that "outdated" responses to the business rates system will not help to address the challenges facing the economy.
Mr Hamilton, now chief executive of Belfast Chamber, spoke in a submission from it, responding to his old department's business rates consultation, which closed yesterday.
The Chamber's paper makes suggestions including establishing a high street regeneration fund, support for new businesses, recognising the value of charities and the cultural sector to local economies, stimulating urban living and nurturing tourism.
Mr Hamilton said: "While we welcome the opportunity through this consultation to suggest reforms based on the vast experience of all our members, it is crucial that Government responds by bringing forward real reforms to the business rating system like those suggested by Belfast Chamber.
"A recent survey revealed 94% of our members believe the current rating system to be unfair, especially those in the retail.
"In NI, retailing accounts for 12% of the local economy, but pays about a quarter of all rates levied.
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"As consumer habits change and more retail transactions take place online, bricks-and-mortar traders are facing increasing challenges to realise a profit."
He said retailers were at the centre of a "delicate business eco-system that underpins hospitality, tourism and the arts and give Belfast its unique character".
"We cannot afford to lose the economic and cultural vibrancy that's crucial to sustain our economy going forward. We must act now," he added.
Belfast Chamber member Sam Shephard, who runs the Juice Jar in Wellington Place, said rates are a "huge overhead".
"It is essential that we have a fair business rates system that allows local businesses to compete and continue to grow and employ more people," he added.
A rates revaluation was carried out in 2014 while Mr Hamilton was Finance Minister.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has issued its response to the consultation. Roger Pollen, its head of external affairs, said policy makers needed to embed the Small Business Rate Relief scheme as a permanent feature, rather than subject it to review. He added: "Given that the Northern Ireland block grant has received significant additional funding in recent years as a result of further rates relief in England, the Small Business Rate Relief scheme should also be enhanced to reflect this, rather than being used to fund other pressures."
He said start-ups operating out of non-domestic properties should receive a rates exemption through a business allowance which could phase in the payment or rates. Mr Pollen added that FSB also supported reinstating rural ATM relief, and wants 100% relief for independent childcare providers.