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Local ratepayers are warned to expect higher bills and slashed services due to impact of crisis

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David Jackson, chair of Solace NI

David Jackson, chair of Solace NI

David Jackson, chair of Solace NI

Ratepayers here face a hike in bills due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, it has been warned.

David Jackson, chair of Solace NI, the body of chief executives that oversees our local authorities, also said that "at least two councils" are facing insolvency within three months.

A Stormont committee heard this week that one council is considering a 30% increase in rates, and Antrim and Newtownabbey council has furloughed hundreds of staff.

The communities committee was told on Wednesday that councils had lost 75% of their income and may have to lay off staff.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday Mr Jackson, who is chief executive of Causeway Coast and Glens Council, said local authorities will have to make "difficult decisions" given the unprecedented financial outlook.

He estimated that from the start of the lockdown until the end of June councils will have lost £40.5m, although he stressed that mitigation measures, such as furloughing employees, could see that figure brought down to £24m.

Mr Jackson explained that roughly 25% of council income comprises revenue streams such as car parking and leisure centre fees, which had "pretty much dried up", while the bulk of revenue (75%) - made up of domestic and commercial rates - could also take a hit.

Mr Jackson revealed that loss has yet to be calculated, but warned, on the basis of economic forecasts, the income from rates is likely to be "diminished significantly".

He also warned that councils may have to keep leisure centres and community centres closed even after the lockdown is lifted due to the crisis.

"That's the short-term element of that. In the longer term the other pressure is that if because of the consequences (of the crisis) some of the businesses don't come back at the same strength prior to the Covid-19 situation, then rates income is likely to diminish significantly," he insisted.

"And, unfortunately, in that worse case scenario it clearly is going to have an impact on different services across the councils."

Mr Jackson said financial packages, such as those made by the Scottish and Welsh Governments for councils, must be extended to local authorities here.

Otherwise, he insisted, councils will have to look at increasing rates bills.

"It appears to be a likelihood at the minute," he said.

Stressing that elected members on each respective council are responsible for making such decisions, he said local authorities would probably aim to strike a balance between reducing services and raising rates.

"Again it will be down to that judgment between how hard you cut back on services," he explained.

"If you really, really cut back on the essential services only, then you might be able to protect the local ratepayer in that regard.

"But then you are also starting to remove all those services that they pay for.

"You're talking about leisure centres staying closed, art centres being closed, community centres being closed, grass not being cut.

"These don't always sound like important issues, but to local people they can be important issues."

Mr Jackson said efforts were already under way to get financial help from the UK Government.

"There's a lot of competition on central Government resources at the moment, but in the absence of support, some of these very difficult decisions will have to be made," he added.

Belfast Telegraph