Belfast ratepayers facing shock rise in rates bill as only UUP prepared to oppose increase
Householders in Belfast are set to be hit with higher rates bills as the city council prepares to vote for a rise at a meeting tonight.
Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party are backing the increase to the district rate, with the Ulster Unionists opposing it and the DUP abstaining.
The SDLP is supporting the hike, but one of its councillors has told the Belfast Telegraph that he will break ranks and vote against the motion.
The council has frozen the district rate for the past three years due to the recession. But a 1.48% rise has now been proposed by senior City Hall officers. Of the four main party groupings, only the Ulster Unionists oppose it.
UUP councillor Jim Rodgers said: "Ratepayers already feel they're not getting value for money and it's very wrong to increase the burden on them at this time of austerity.
"Belfast City Council strikes the second highest rate in the whole of Northern Ireland, only Derry is ahead of us. My party won't be voting for even bigger rates bills."
Mr Rodgers said that the rates hike could be avoided if the council cut its £190m annual expenditure by £2m. "I'm very confident that this could be done. We have asked senior council officers to look at ways of making savings in all departments," he said.
"We believe they could learn about how to cut expenditure, while still providing services, by spending some time observing the private sector."
SDLP councillor Declan Boyle also said he "strongly opposed" the rates hike.
"The rest of my colleagues will be voting for it but, in all good conscience, I couldn't do that," he stated.
"I contested the last council election on a platform of freezing or reducing rates and I won't go back on my word. We are still in a deep recession and people are struggling to pay their bills.
"The last thing they need is this added pressure. The public already feel the rates are far too high and they don't know what the money is being used for."
Mr Boyle denied suggestions that the proposed increase was minimal.
"If the Bank of England governor suggested a 1.4% increase in interest rates there would be uproar - this is no different," he said.
DUP councillor Brian Kingston confirmed that his party would be abstaining in tonight's vote. He said that the DUP grouping had met council officials several times to discuss the proposed rise.
"We have consistently pressed for cost-cutting while aiming to preserve the quality of council services," he said.
"But we have been told that this increase in the district rate is inevitable due to a nationally agreed pay rise, greater national insurance contributions from employers, and a reduction in council earnings. The cost involved in extending the Waterfront, and the opening of several new buildings in the city, has also played a part. Even with all these factors in play, the proposed rise is still lower than the rate of inflation."
Mr Kingston branded the Ulster Unionists' position of a zero rise increase as being "just a stunt".
"We have asked those taking this stance to provide details of how they will achieve it, while maintaining services, and nothing has been forthcoming," he said.
Alliance councillor Michael Long said his party would be voting in favour of the rates rise.
"We are open to alternatives to increasing the district rate and we've asked those parties both voting against the rise, and abstaining, to show us how it could be done.
"To date, none of them has made a single concrete proposal on the matter.
"The council is investing £105m in leisure provision over the next five years and millions of pounds in other facilities in the city.
"Nobody has produced details on how to do all this while maintaining a zero increase in the district rate."
Household rates in Northern Ireland are made up of both a district rate, set by local councils, and a regional rate set by Stormont.
The regional rate is due to rise by 1.7%.