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Retail leaders in united appeal for rates holiday extension to help save businesses in Northern Ireland

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General view of PSNI officers in Belfast city centre during lockdown. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

General view of PSNI officers in Belfast city centre during lockdown. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

General view of PSNI officers in Belfast city centre during lockdown. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Business leaders have said a rates holiday for Northern Ireland must continue as thousands of firms "are hurting like never before".

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said he expects the hospitality industry will be the last to see lockdown measures lifted.

A joint statement was issued in response on Sunday from Glyn Roberts, Colin Neill and Simon Hamilton, the chief executives of Retail NI, Hospitality Ulster and the Belfast Chamber respectively.

It warned that after a month with no income, thousands of businesses were facing "unfathomable difficulties" and would need rolling financial support to survive the pandemic.

At present local businesses have been granted a three-month break from paying rates, compared to 12 months in Britain.

A scheme offering grants of £25,000 also opens on Monday here for those in retail, hospitality and tourism.

Payments of £10,000 have already been made to thousands of small businesses.

The joint statement welcomed the support so far, but said their members had "legitimate fears" for their future.

"Targeted, rolling support is needed now and, given the fact that this crisis is going to leave a lasting legacy, the level and duration of any support needs to last as long as is required," the statement said.

"We know the pressures that the public purse is under during this challenging period but, equally, businesses are facing unfathomable difficulties now and will do for some time to come."

It was also requested that businesses with more than one premises should be eligible to more than one grant.

"It is no exaggeration to say that many of our members will not survive this crisis unless they receive the further support, and that includes a rates holiday reviewed on a rolling basis," the business leaders said.

"Lots of businesses will face restrictions and perhaps even closure for some time to come.

"Even when they are able to trade, it will take some time to get their business going again and get to the position where they would be able to pay a rates bill at all.

"We implore the Executive to listen to this plea and act upon it urgently".

Mr Neill said his sector alone employed 65,000 people and contributed £1.5bn to the economy annually.

"We've always said we're the first hit, the worst hit and the last to get out of it, which is coming true," he said.

He said even a 12-month break from business rates may not be enough to help local companies to survive.

"If they told us, for example, that restaurants can open with social distancing, that means doing 50% of your covers, but your profits don't start till about 75% of your covers.

"So a long-term intervention model is needed to keep those businesses sustainable.

"Another point is that when tourism comes back, over 65% of tourism spend is in the hospitality sector.

"So if we don't sustain the hospitality sector we'll have no tourism income worth talking about."

Several bars in the Belfast area have tried to keep some trade with home deliveries, although the PSNI has been accused of clamping down on this.

"It's giving people money to put food on the table, but that's it," Mr Neill said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said the Executive was committed "to doing everything possible within the finite Covid-19 funding" to support the health service, vulnerable people and businesses.

Over half of the recent £933m Covid-19 funding has been allocated, with £510m going towards business support interventions.

This includes a £370m grant support package for small businesses and others in the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors. It was noted that the 12-month rates holiday in Britain only applied to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses.

By contrast, the three-month rates relief here applies to all businesses including the commercial, manufacturing and service sectors.

In addition, rate bills have been delayed until June while the Small Business Rate Relief has also been renewed, providing almost £20m of relief to 27,000 small businesses.

Belfast Telegraph