Retail NI is ambitious for Northern Ireland and its economy. In our Trade NI Vision 2030 plan we set out a strategy on how to make Northern Ireland the best place in the UK and Ireland to shop, socialise, locate, start a business and how to make our region an eco-system of innovation.
Our plan outlines how we can build an environment where business can thrive and grow, create 65,000 new jobs, develop 21st century high streets, invest in our infrastructure and revitalise our town centres.
However, we will not realise this ambition unless we tackle the growing crisis of the increasingly high cost of doing business in Northern Ireland.
On April 1, small businesses are facing a 'perfect storm' of increased costs, with the Rates Reval increases of up to 40%, the local district rate, a likely hike in the Regional Rate and the Living Wage rising by 6.2%.
Added to this list, are expensive energy costs and the ever-growing burden of red tape.
It is unsustainable for businesses in Northern Ireland to continue to pay the highest business rates in the UK with virtually none of the reliefs that their counterparts elsewhere in the UK have.
Small businesses in England receive a 50% rates discount with an NAV of up to £51,000 while our members get a paltry 20% discount on a NAV of £15,000.
Our Finance Minister Conor Murphy has without doubt the most difficult job in Northern Ireland politics.
He faces huge challenges in producing a viable budget later this month that will deal with the funding crises in health, education and infrastructure.
But it is vital that he does not make a bad situation even worse by hiking the regional business rate when he produces that budget.
Such a move would be self-defeating, as in the longer term more businesses would close, resulting in less tax and rates being paid to support public services.
Conor Murphy needs to follow through on his ministerial predecessor's proposals for a targeted approach to small business rate relief, Rethinking Rates, which was put forward in 2017.
These proposals gave independent retailers and hospitality businesses a 40% relief in rates and could be implemented very quickly if the political will is there.
These proposals are fully costed and are value for money for the taxpayer.
In addition, we also need to ensure that any new system of business rates includes incentives for business growth.
In the recent Rates Policy Review, Retail NI outlined proposals for a green rate relief scheme to incentivise businesses to invest in green technology, an enhancement the current empty premises rate relief scheme, a capital allowance scheme and also making it easier for businesses to access the Rates Hardship scheme.
Retail NI has never said that fixing business rates is a silver bullet for the many challenges facing our retail sector and high streets, but it is a very significant part of the solution.
In our meeting with the Economy Minister last week, we urged Diane Dodds to establish a working group to identify solutions to the high costs facing businesses and a renewed Better Regulation strategy, in which every Executive department should have set yearly targets to achieve.
Time is not on the side of the Executive. It has two years to publish and implement a Programme for Government and with three wasted years, it must deliver for our local economy in a real and meaningful way.
Retail NI and its members stand ready to work in a new partnership with the Executive and we will bring solutions and new thinking to the very many challenges as Northern Ireland starts this new decade and opens a new chapter in its history.