Businesses in Belfast could soon be paying higher rates following a vote taken by city councillors on Friday.
The only Ulster Unionist representative present, Jim Rodgers, voted against the proposal which was supported by both Sinn Fein and Alliance.
Cost-saving measures across council services have resulted in a freeze on the non-domestic rate for the last three years – but the decision of the strategic policy and resources committee means a rise of around one and a half per cent could be implemented in the next financial year.
DUP and SDLP councillors on the committee abstained and are understood to be considering how they will vote when the decision is due to be ratified at a meeting of the full council on February 1.
Finances raised through both domestic and business rates accounts for 75 per cent of the council’s total income.
Traders in the city have claimed that business rates are already too high, leading to an unsustainable number of vacant shop units.
Following Friday’s meeting, Mr Rodgers said a further re-examination of the council’s departmental budgets could bring sufficient savings to remove the risk of a rates hike.
“We firmly believe that the rates in Belfast are far, far too high, and that we should have again been looking at a zero per cent increase,” he said.
“I have no doubt that more businesses are going to go to the wall. We need to reduce our spending. I don’t want to see anybody losing their jobs, but if we are going to build a better Belfast, which the majority of us on the council desires, then we certainly need to have a look at the cost of running the council,” Mr Rodgers added.
His party colleague Graham Craig said the decision of the DUP councillors to abstain “shatters the illusion that the DUP is the party of economic prudence”.
Mr Craig added: “Belfast City Council has not increased the rates for three years. As a consequence we have seen investment and rates revenue actually increase. I fear that [Friday’s] decision will reverse these positive trends.”
Brian Kingston of the DUP was one of the councillors who abstained. He said his party would “seriously consider” any plan to further reduce costs but, with no details of an alternative, unavoidable rises in council expenditure this year will make the rates increase necessary.
“We asked to see the detail of what the UUP is proposing, because this would need to go through the procedures with the director of finance. To just stand up and propose zero per cent, or a minus figure, with no detail is just a stunt.”