Hiking Business Rates and Car Parking Charges is Non-Starter

As the next phase of the talks to restore devolution begin tomorrow, it is hard to believe that we have had no effective Government for over a year. The business community deserve a lot better than a year of care and maintenance by civil servants and emergency budgets from Westminster.

It is now a matter of weeks before a Budget has to be agreed and some tough decisions will have to make to keep public services going and our economy moving forward. Last week we both met with Department of Finance senior officials to discuss the Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-2020 briefing paper, which was launched before Christmas.

It sets out some stark choices to be made if we are to have a balanced budget to fund public services and continue to invest in our infrastructure.

Both our organisations are absolutely opposed to the documents proposals to increase Business Rates, Car Parking charges and to axe the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme

These proposals would disproportionally impact on both the hospitality and retail sectors and our town and city centres. The central focus of the Programme for Government is economic growth - these proposals to hike rates and car parking will have the opposite effect. Make no mistake; if these proposals are to be accepted by Ministers, we will see a significant amount of our members closing their businesses and the unemployment figures increasing.

We are surprised that officials have proposed something which is so out of line with the policy priorities of the previous Executive. Civil Servants are in a difficult position with no Executive in place, but they should not putting options on the table that will result in job losses and businesses closing.

To even suggest as an option to substantially increase business rates is a non-starter. Far from increasing business rates, we need to see them decreased. 71% of our members’ rate bills increased after the last revaluation and to further increase that burden would result in some of our members closing their businesses.

What makes this proposal even more unacceptable is that the Department of Finance also suggests not replacing the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme, which would be a double whammy for our members and the wider small business sector. Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster have tabled proposals to improve the existing Small Business Rate Relief Scheme, which we would urge any incoming Finance Minister to urgently consider.

 As if this was not bad enough, the paper also suggests a hike in on-street car parking charges and actually puts forward the idea of extending them to other parts of our towns and cities. This would drive shoppers away from our town centres towards the big out-of-town multinationals with their free car parking.

Education quite rightly has been made a priority in this document. However we cannot ignore the financial waste of sixty thousand empty desks and the duplication of schools and services. Transformation of our Education sector needs to be tackled now to ensure we have a cost effective and efficient system which delivers for our community and above all for the needs of the economy.

As our political parties begin the talks again tomorrow, they need to ensure locally accountable Executive Ministers will be in place, deciding our Budget priorities and moving our economy forward. Direct Rule is not an option to be considered lightly.

Article by Glyn Roberts, Retail NI Chief Executive and Colin Neill, Hospitality Ulster Chief Executive