Rates burden on Larne businesses is too high — enough is enough

Dunnes store in Larne, which is to close
Dunnes store in Larne, which is to close
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Shoppers in Larne are recovering from the sudden closure of their Dunnes Store which had traded for over 35 years.

Dunnes have been silent on the reasons for the closure so it is not clear what role, if any, its £100,000+ a year rates bill will have played in the decision.

However, any businessperson operating in the Mid and East Antrim (MEA) area will find it a very hostile business rates environment with business rates just 1.6% short of being the most expensive in the entire UK.

The MEA council contribution to that disgraceful position is to set its district rate 38% higher than the least expensive district in Northern Ireland. All this in an region with by far the lowest level of rates relief for small businesses available anywhere in the UK.

Basic research would show that over the last three years, as a result of the above factors, the 123 businesses operating alongside Dunnes on the Main Street in Larne will between them have paid a massive £1.2 million more in business rates than would be the case if they were operating in Scotland.

In those last three years Northern Ireland received an additional £130 million as a result of the significantly increased levels of small business support in England virtually none of which flowed to support the Northern Ireland small business sector - it was quietly pocketed by Stormont.

The review of business rates by the Department of Finance (DoF) is unlikely to provide comfort as they have a truly lamentable track record when it comes to effective policy making in this crucial area of the economy.

They have been responsible for commissioning lopsided reviews into business rates, basing policy on recommendations devoid of an evidence base, accepting entirely contradictory positions regarding the economic impact of reducing business rates and taxes and for publishing consultations on rates reform based on statements absolutely contradicted their own evidence.

No – the way ahead is for an urgent and comprehensive review of business rates in Northern Ireland conducted by the NI Affairs Select Committee in Westminster who can be expected to bring a higher degree of rigour and independence to the task than otherwise would be the case. This is supported by our local MP Mr Sammy Wilson.

Our local councillors need to hold MEA Council to account for their excessive level of district rates. They along with our MLAs need to demand a truly competitive rates relief scheme for small businesses – certainly no less generous than that pertaining in Scotland.

Finally we need all elected representatives to commit to ending the ongoing scandal of Stormont not passing on to the small business sector sums it receives as a result of increasing levels of small business support in England.

Action is needed now by our politicians at the local, regional and national level. As far as the unfair rates burden in Larne and indeed across Northern Ireland is concerned - enough is enough.

• Tom and Paul McMullen operate a range of businesses in the Larne area including retailing, private sector rental and commercial property rental