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Belfast Council told to claw back £3.5m in rates hike row

Belfast City councillors have demanded an emergency meeting with the chief executive of Land and Property Services after being told they had to claw back £3.5m before striking the district rate.

Councillors had been expected to agree an increase of 2.5%, the lowest in 10 years, during last night’s meeting in City Hall. However, members deferred their decision because a revised estimate of rates income from Land and Property Services (LPS) was not lodged until late last week.

It is now thought rates may increase by as much as 4.5%.

In October, the council was advised it would have to pay back an estimated £575,000 to make up the difference between the LPS forecast and the actual income from rates during 2010/11.

But a revised estimate given to the council last Friday, shows it now has to find £3.5m for 2010/11 — which obviously has knock-on implications for 2011/12.

Councillor Ian Crozier, chairman of the council's Strategic |Policy and Resources Committee, said he was angry at not knowing about the deficit until the eleventh hour. “We had arrived at the position where we were going to strike a rate of 2.5%,” he said. “But now we have been hit with the news that the income for the current year is lower and the projected |income for the next year is also to be much lower.

“We are having to re-assess our priorities. We had been looking at having a £20m capital investment programme in Belfast. That was very positive and funding would have gone towards the development of sporting facilities. Now we are looking at it from the point, if all or any of it, is affordable.”

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Councillor Jim Rogers said: “Heads should roll in LPS. The buck stops with the chief executive. If they worked in the private sector they would not have time to put their coat on. Let’s make sure these people are accountable.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for LPS said the scale of the downturn had made forecasting income |difficult.

“LPS previously provided councils with a report at the beginning of the year and at year end,” she said. “The new partnership approach means councils receive quarterly updates on the anticipated position to help councils in planning and budgeting work.

“The economic downturn has led to the closure of businesses and an increase in those going into liquidation/bankruptcy.

“In addition, fewer new properties are now being built. All of these factors have had a significant impact on the amount of rates being collected.”

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