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Pensioners given rates bill break

Finance chief delivers a 20% reduction to OAPs

By Chris Thornton

Finance Minister Peter Robinson handed pensioners new tax breaks for household rates - but could face an Assembly fight over proposals to cut bills for richer homeowners.

Mr Robinson told MLAs that he will introduce new relief that will slash payments by older people in time for next April's bills.

He was announcing the results of the Executive's review of rates - one of the first measures brought in by the new administration when it was formed in May - at Stormont this morning.

The new rate system was brought in this year by direct rule ministers and is based on the property value of each house. But the Stormont Executive indicated that it wanted to bring in quick reforms to the system.

Mr Robinson announced today that he will introduce a 20% discount on rates bills for people over 70 who are living on their own.

Officials say they are targeting the hardest pressed pensioners because Department of Finance research shows that pensioners below the age of 70 and those living with others tend to be better off.

The move will take up to £3m out of the £480m raised annually through the regional rate.

The minister will also increase the savings threshold for the current pensioners' relief scheme from £16,000 to £50,000 - meaning more older people with savings will qualify for the tax breaks.

These measures are being brought in for April's bills because Government research shows that pensioners were hit hardest by the new system.

Mr Robinson also wants to lower the cap for rates bills which will give about 5,000 people who live in above average houses about £400 off their rates bills.

Currently rates bills are capped for homes worth more than £500,000. Mr Robinson suggested today that the cap be lowered to homes worth £400,000 - a move that will wipe £2m off rates revenue.

But Mr Robinson believes the lower cap will bring maximum bills closer to the highest average council tax bill in England. However, he may have to push the measure through the Assembly in order to introduce it in April 2009.

The minister also announced a deferment scheme that will allow pensioners to roll up their rates bills against the equity in their homes - meaning they won't have to pay those bills until they sell the house or die.

The Finance Minister said he is also looking at other reforms to bring in over the long term, including rates charges for empty houses, a measure that could bring in more than £10m a year and offset the revenue lost of the tax breaks.

He indicated he may also scrap rates relief for student homes since it is widely believed the savings go straight to landlords. Mr Robinson said he will take a harder look at a derelict land tax and rates rebates for energy efficient homes.

Belfast Telegraph


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