Mid and East Antrim Borough is just one pence short of being the most expensive area for business rates anywhere in the United Kingdom, it has been claimed in a new report.
According to the author, businessman Tom McMullan, business rates in Larne town centre are three times higher than London.
Mr. McMullan claims that 120 traders at Larne Main Street pay some £785,000 annually in business rates.
He has suggested that if additional funds received in the block grant to ensure the same level of support for the small business sector as Scotland, the level of discount would rise from five per cent to 45 per cent meaning that approximately 100 Main Street businesses would pay no rates as they would be judged too small.
Tom and brother Paul McMullan, of East Antrim Electrical, are now demanding that the NI Affairs Select Committee at Westminster conducts an inquiry into business rates in Northern Ireland and have lobbied MP Sammy Wilson in support of their campaign over what they have described as “ridiculously high” rates,
Commenting on the recent decision by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to raise business rates, Tom said: “in the context where local businesses are just 1p below the highest business rates anywhere in the UK, have the lowest level of small business rate support of any region in the UK and where we have about 15 per cent of shop premises vacant, it could hardly be described as helpful.”
A Main Street recently accused the council of “stabbing us in the back”, saying: “Council want us to help with their events and attend their retail workshops and training events, but stab us in the back.”
“Practise what you preach councillors.”
The recent increase was also described as “disappointing to say the least”.
“Is it any bit of wonder businesses are being forced out of town/out of business altogether with the extortionate rates we have to pay”, one said.
Tom has urged businesses who agree the burden is “unfairly high” to lobby their councillors, MLAs, MPs and business organisations for change and he has called for the review of business rates commissioned by the Department of Finance to be overseen by an independent panel.
“We have also been encouraged by the letters of support for our call for a Select Committee Inquiry which have been sent to Sammy Wilson MP by Hospitality Ulster and Retail NI – two organisations who have historically been at the forefront of the call for reform of business rates.
“Mid and East Antrim Council has a district rate which is 38 per cent higher than the district rate applying the lowest Northern Ireland council area and it is within one pence of being the most expensive area for small businesses anywhere in the UK.
“So our newly elected councillors need to be absolutely meticulous in ensuring that every pound spent by the MEA Council can be justified and is delivering value for money.
“Once devolution is restored, our MLAs need to press on urgently with a full review of the rating system.”
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: “As Finance Minister, I had introduced the Small Business Rates Relief Scheme which is now copied in other parts of the United Kingdom and which reduced rates drastically for a large number of businesses across Northern Ireland.
“Clearly there is more to be done and whilst rating policy is an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly there is a need for an evidence based change in the rates legislation. Some of that evidence has been produced by the report which Tom and Paul McMullan have produced.
“I have advised them that one of the ways of getting this information aired was to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster and even though it is a devolved issue, there are ways in which the Committee could look at it.
“I have promised that I will lobby our Members on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the new chairman when he or she is appointed to try and get this on the agenda of the Committee.”
A spokesperson for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said: “Rates relief decisions in Northern Ireland currently sit with the Department of Finance not local councils. One of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s key priorities is to grow the economy, and that includes trying to help businesses grow where we can.
“The Department of Finance has commissioned a review into rates relief, and we will take part in that ensuring we reinforce the need for improved rate relief for small businesses.”
Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster have welcomed the announcement by the Department of Finance that a comprehensive review of business rates is to be held.
Chief Executives of Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster Glyn Roberts and Colin Neill said: “Both our organisations are delighted that the Department of Finance have announced this review into non-domestic rates. We have consistently lobbied for this over a number of years and are pleased that our joint call has been heard.
“While this is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. This review provides us with a road map for radical change to an antiquated and not fit for purpose system of business rates which is a major burden for our members.
“In this review, we will be outlining significant changes to rates, including our proposals for a targeted approach to small business rates relief, a revamp of the Rates Hardship fund, green rates rebate for business who invest in carbon neutral technology and greater relief for new start businesses.
“At the last UK Budget, the Chancellor gave independent retailers and hospitality businesses a third off their rate bills in England. We want nothing less than this for our members in Northern Ireland.”