Trade organisations back review of 'antiquated' business rates system
Business rates in Northern Ireland are to be examined by the Civil Service in a bid to bring the system up to date.
The Department of Finance announced it would carry out a "full and comprehensive" review of the rates paid by businesses, including pubs and shops.
But it also warned that without ministers in government, it could only introduce limited changes at best.
Lobby groups including Retail NI, the NI Retail Consortium and Hospitality NI have campaigned for a review of the system.
A large pub in the province typically faces a rates liability of around £80,000 a year, according to one trade body.
It is understood one independent department store in a large town in Northern Ireland has an annual rates bill of £500,000.
Many bricks and mortar shops say that the viability of their businesses is under threat because of rates bills, while online competitors do not face the same kind of outlay.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Sue Gray, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance, said: "In recent years significant changes have taken place in our high streets and town centres.
"It is critical from a business perspective, as well as a government funding perspective, that our rating system is capable of responding to this of change.
"That's why I am announcing a full and comprehensive review of business rates."
Without ministers, there are limits to the policy changes the Civil Service can introduce.
Despite that, Retail NI and Hospitality NI welcomed the announcement that the rates system would be reviewed.
"While this is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end," their chief executives said.
"This review provides us with a roadmap for radical change to an antiquated and not fit for purpose system of business rates, which is a major burden for our members."
Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, also welcomed the development.
"Rates are a disproportionate burden on smaller businesses and restrict their ability to invest, grow and create jobs," Mr Pollen said.
"A significantly higher proportion of small businesses in Great Britain are exempt from rates compared to their counterparts in Northern Ireland, and the benefit of enhanced rates relief announced by the Chancellor at the last budget was not passed on to firms here."
Rajesh Rana, president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that companies in the city centre accounted for 65% of the council's rates income.
"Business rates remain an unfair burden, particularly on retail and licensed premises," Mr Rana added.