‘£15 lifeline stops Carrickfergus shops going bust’

Carrickfergus town centre. Archive picture.
Carrickfergus town centre. Archive picture.
  • Fears for future of town centre businesses
  • Traders slam rates imbalance between town centre and out-of-town stores
  • Council considers alternatives to small business rates relief scheme

A former Carrick trader says that just £15 per week in rates relief can make the difference between local firms surviving or going bust.

Independent Councillor Jim Brown said there was a need to address the “leaching of town centre business”, during a meeting of Mid and East Antrim Council’s Economic Growth and Development Committee.

‘There are shops in Carrick where £15 a week is making the difference between staying open and closing’

Councillor Jim Brown

Members were discussing potential alternatives to the small business rates relief (SBRR) scheme, which has awarded £61.5 million to non-domestic ratepayers since its inception in 2010.

The initiative provided a stepped reduction in rates bills for businesses based on an individual property’s net annual value (NAV).

While the SBRR scheme has been extended until 2016/17, a report by Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) concluded that it provides little economic benefit in terms of increased employment or additional investment and should be phased out as economic conditions improve.

A report presented to councillors stated that the scheme offered a “low level of value for money” and had “failed to deliver any significant level of economic growth or investment”.

Alternatives presented for consideration included introducing business improvement districts, phasing out SBRR and creating an innovation hub to review rates relief. Other suggestions included offering rates relief to encourage investment and regeneration, and to encourage town centre living and occupation of vacant premises.

The average amount of rates relief per business was £700, equivalent to around £15 per week.

Mr Brown, the committee’s vice-chair who previously ran a store in Eden, voiced his concern at the pressures on businesses in the retail heart of the town during Monday night’s debate.

“We have got to look at how we address the leaching of town centre businesses,” he stated. “I am aware that there are shops in Carrick where £15 a week is making the difference between staying open and closing and that’s the reality.

“We can do all the town centre improvements that we want but we can’t force people to shop in town centres.

“I hope we can get a further breakdown of the take up in Mid and East Antrim regarding rates relief across the three major areas to ensure that everybody who is entitled to make an application is making an application.

“It has not been the panacea but it has provided a lifeline to struggling businesses.”

In March, local business Pebbles closed its doors after 32 years of trading, citing lack of footfall in the town centre and spiralling overhead costs. The High Street branch of Poundstretcher closed that month too.

UUP Cllr John Stewart, also a businessman, said there was a need to “look at the disparity between town centres and what they pay for rateable value per square foot” as opposed to out-of-town business parks.

“In Carrick one in four shops are vacant,” he stated.

“I would even like to see free rates for those properties for up to two years.

“If we get someone in then eventually when that rate relief lifts they will contribute to the whole area.

“When no-one is in they won’t get any improvement.”

Cllr Stewart pointed out that internet shopping had severely impacted upon businesses.

“The high street is now on Amazon or eBay, if we don’t recognise that we can’t solve the problem,” he said.

“I would implore the department to give timely notice to businesses so they can make arrangements if they decide to cut this scheme.”

Mayor Billy Ashe requested that an officer ask the department whether endorsing a regional scheme would prevent council having a local rates relief scheme if it so desired.

Committee Chair Cllr Audrey Wales said that she would pass on the committee’s comments and obtain the information requested.