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Northern Ireland rate arrears hit record high of £157m

By David Young

Over 1,800 properties were repossessed in Northern Ireland in the last year.

The number of people ordered to surrender keys after defaulting on mortgage payments emerged after figures showed that more than 80,000 householders and almost 19,000 business owners failed to pay their rates in 2009/10.

The total owed in rate arrears at the end of the last financial year in March was a record £157m — nearly two-thirds of which was from the business sector.

In the same period, 3,658 writs or summons for repossession were issued, the NI Court Service said.

Of those cases, 1,804 resulted in possession orders being made.

The rate arrears figures, which were released by the Land and Property Services (LPS), highlighted the major impact the recession is having on local businesses.

John Wilkinson, chief executive of LPS, said: “The length of the current recession has put financial strain on a number of local businesses and this has been clearly shown by the growth in rating debt in this sector. Despite an increase in the rates collected by LPS, difficulties for local businesses has led to a growth in the figure of uncollected rates.

“The figure of uncollected debt stood at £157m at 31 March 2010, but over £30m of this has been collected in the last three months. The fact that nearly two-thirds of the end of year figure relates to non-domestic customers is a cause of concern. This proportion has grown over the past year.”

Mr Wilkinson appealed for firms to contact LPS if they were in difficulties to discuss options.

But last year also saw a record level of rates collected — £961m.

Mr Wilkinson warned that the LPS would pursue those who owe rates through the courts.

“Over the past year, we have issued 42,352 court processes against ratepayers who have defaulted on their payments and have been awarded 16,455 court decrees,” he said.

“Both of these figures are increases on the previous year. The fact is that we do not want to take ratepayers to court, but if they fail to speak to us about payment options, we are left with no choice.

“In almost all cases, we are able to agree an extended payment arrangement with the ratepayer. Obviously, when we allow ratepayers to pay smaller amounts over a longer period of time, this has an impact on our levels of debt.

“However, we believe it is more important to support people during this difficult period.”

The Executive has introduced measures designed to help businesses through the recession, including the Small Business Rate Relief scheme and a freeze in real terms in the regional rate.

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