Business Rates and Update on the Implementation of the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2012

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 28th May 2012.

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Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury) 12:30 pm, 28th May 2012

I have a number of statements here, Mr Speaker, so I want to make sure that I have the right one. I would hate to start off on the wrong foot and for you to call me to order.

I wish to make a statement to the House on the implementation of the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2012. There has, quite rightly, been quite a lot of discussion recently in the newspapers about the economic problems that are being experienced by town centres and small businesses in those town centres. I felt that it was worthwhile to put on record what the Assembly has done to date and also to explain some of the limitations on what can be done by the Assembly.

My statement today will update Members about the initial success of the implementation of the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2012, which we passed in February, and respond to calls for positive action to be taken to alleviate the impact on the local business community during these difficult and changing times.

Every week — I am sure that Members will have experienced it in their constituencies — we hear of shop closures and the impact that the downturn is having on local traders in our towns and cities. I see it for myself in my constituency and as I visit other towns and cities in my capacity as Finance Minister, and I hear about it in the media and, of course, in the House from Members during Question Time and so on. Only last week, research by one retail organisation revealed that one in five shops in Northern Ireland is empty. That is the highest vacancy rate in the United Kingdom.

It is not simply the economic downturn that is causing the problem. Online shopping and bigger stores are taking an increasing share of consumer spending, and the recession is leading to, at least for this period, consumers having less money to spend. The retail industry has been undergoing a revolution, and that is having a sudden impact on local traders because, overall, retail spending is down. Times are changing for local retailers, and it is clear that there are simply too many shops in some areas, and no amount of public money will be enough to sustain them all. However, I want to give those with a future an opportunity or a fighting chance to help maintain the commercial and social core of our towns and cities.

Furthermore, we must recognise the wider context. Other sectors of business need help, as consumer spending comes from those in employment. It is not simply a matter of helping the retail sector alone. Allow me, therefore, an opportunity to outline the measures that I, as Finance Minister, have taken to create the right conditions for businesses to survive and flourish.

It is well known that people in Northern Ireland enjoy the lowest household taxes in the United Kingdom. We ought to remember that. Every day on the radio, we hear people talking about the level of rates in Northern Ireland. We have the lowest household taxes of anywhere in the United Kingdom, and that is a result of policies that have been actively pursued by the Executive in deciding, in the previous Budget period, to freeze rates in real terms and to do the same in this Budget period up to 2015 to enable people to keep as much of their money as possible in their own pockets. That is better than us simply taking the easy way out and looking for the kind of increases that occurred under direct rule or, indeed, that are being undertaken, even in these recessionary times, in other parts of the United Kingdom.

It is not always fully appreciated how competitive our business rates are compared to those in England, Scotland and Wales. For a start, as I have said, the regional rate is being held constant in real terms. That is part of the four-year Budget that the Executive have agreed, and businesses can bank on that. It will not change; it is set in stone until 2014-15. That gives certainty and stability. That means an increase of 2·2% in the regional rate for business ratepayers over the 2012-13 rating year. That builds on the regional rate freeze over the past four years, keeping rate increases as low as possible and meaning that, unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom, business rates will have been frozen in real terms in Northern Ireland for seven straight years.

We have also adopted the lowest inflationary index, the GDP deflator. Business rates in other parts of the UK are geared to the retail price index and, this year, went up by 5·6%, which is more than double what was experienced locally. In addition, the Executive have agreed to hold manufacturing rates at 30%.

That helps 4,300 manufacturing businesses with £60 million in rates relief alone. That is an economic support that is unique to Northern Ireland. We have also retained the empty property relief at 50%. It has been removed in England and Wales and is being removed in Scotland. This is the right policy, given the growing number of empty shops.

In addition, of course, freezing domestic rates and deferring water charges have bolstered spending power. Do not forget the 19% increase in the domestic regional rate in the year before devolution, the absence of a cap on domestic rate bills and the water bills that were ready for posting before the Assembly was set up. We saved most households hundreds, if not thousands of pounds in the process, at a cost to public expenditure. There is an opportunity that will be foregone here if we do not collect this money, because it will not be available for other public services. It has been of real benefit to the retail sector by reducing its costs but also by giving people more disposable income to spend in the shops.

Together, all these actions complement the commercial rating measures that this Assembly approved through the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. We passed that legislation, despite significant pressure from some quarters not to, precisely because we understood that small businesses needed help now.

I will briefly address some of the criticisms of the large retail levy and what has happened in reality. Some said that the 15% increase in rates for large stores would see the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a place for large retailers to invest diminished, yet the Environment Minister’s desk is strewn with planning applications for large retail premises in virtually every part of the Province.

I will turn now to the measures enacted in the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. The expanded small business rate relief scheme provided around 8,200 extra business ratepayers with a 20% discount for the next three years, bringing the total number of business ratepayers who benefit from that relief up to 23,000 businesses. The percentage of Northern Ireland properties now covered by the small business rate relief scheme is 33%; a third of all businesses and commercial properties, representing a total rate relief of £12million.

The extension to the scheme was achieved by charging the very largest retailers a levy rather than imposing an additional burden on local business ratepayers, which is the way in which similar schemes are paid for in other parts of the UK. I will consider extending the scope of the scheme next year, again at no cost to other ratepayers. What I am able to do will depend on the outcome of my Department’s evaluation of the scheme, which will be carried out later this year. That evaluation will include consideration of how best to recycle the savings that have been achieved through the exclusion of ratepayers with multiple premises.

However, it is already apparent that the extended small business rate relief scheme is making a significant difference. It was dismissed by some as being too small to be of any benefit, but I have been approached by retailers who are keen to thank me, this Executive and this Assembly for the reduction in their rate bills in these challenging times. This reduction sits, on average, at around £1,500 over a three-year period. For those who availed themselves of the enhancements introduced in April, the average amount awarded over the three-year period will be around £2,000.

Other measures have been introduced this year to help regenerate town centres, including a concession that allows new occupiers of long-term empty retail premises to receive a 50% rebate on their rates for 12 months. The rates holiday has already received a positive response from businesses; close to 50 enquiries are currently being dealt with by Land and Property Services. Although this might not seem a lot, when it is multiplied up over the remainder of this year it will mean lots more shops being occupied in our towns and city centres and a lot more people being employed. I encourage all MLAs to actively promote this innovative scheme in their own areas in whatever way they can. Unlike the small business rate relief, which goes to businesses automatically, businesses have to apply for this, because it is not an automatic scheme.

In addition, the use of any empty shop window displays for non-commercial purposes will now be disregarded for rating purposes, allowing unoccupied properties to be given some life and stop them from bringing down the appearance of other premises around them.

I have got to say that, as I have walked around town centres, I have seen some marvellous examples of that. Shop displays have made it look as though there is activity going on in shops, rather than the shutters being pulled down, which, of course, creates an air of dereliction on the street.

The measures are unique to Northern Ireland and, along with the large stores levy and the recent announcement of a business rates revaluation, they deliver the majority of the recommendations of the ‘Fair Rates for Small Traders’ campaign document. That was produced by a coalition of more than 31 business organisations and trader groups, which published a five-point plan last autumn.

The Northern Ireland Executive have offered the retail and small business sector a suite of measures that are, in my view, unprecedented in the United Kingdom. Understandably, and especially in the midst of a recession, we have been lobbied for even more interventions. I am sympathetic to the plight of our business community and, instinctively, I want to see them hold on to more of their profits and invest further in their firms. I hear the calls for more targeting of rate relief, in particular for certain town centres or enterprise zones within them. However, such measures present major difficulties in choosing exactly where to designate and the likely impact that they will have, such as the unfair competitive disadvantage they may create for those outside the chosen areas and the likelihood of causing displacement. Furthermore, even if I wanted to intervene in that way, the risk of someone successfully challenging such a policy is unacceptably high. I would rather direct scarce resources to the business community than waste them on defending well-meaning schemes that are vulnerable to challenge in the courts. I would rather give money to the businesses that I want to help than to barristers and solicitors. For those reasons, I prefer the broader approach I have outlined.

The Executive have also agreed to LPS starting work immediately on a general revaluation of 72,000 non-domestic properties in Northern Ireland. That will redistribute the rating burden from April 2015, based on more up-to-date assessments. Unfortunately, that cannot be rushed through or brought forward, nor should it be regarded as a panacea for all businesses. It will mean that sectors and trading locations that have not fared as well since the last revaluation in 2003 will pay less and those that have fared better will pay more, even if rental values overall have gone down. Just because a property has halved in value over recent years, it does not mean that rates bills will halve. When rental prices doubled in some instances, it did not result in a doubling of rates and nor does it work in the reverse. Although it is far too early to judge, many of our smaller local businesses may not benefit much or at all. I have heard some individuals call for the revaluation to be brought forward by two years. Not only is such a suggestion impractical but it could result in some businesses paying more in their rates two years early. In the meantime, the rebalancing measures that we have agreed — the extension to small business rate relief and the large shops levy — will help many local businesses without adversely affecting our public expenditure position.

I also need to recognise that there are limits to the concessions we can make and still raise enough money to help pay for essential services. I say that because every month someone with a worthy cause comes along and asks for more rates relief or further exemptions. This month it is the equine industry, last month it was town centres, the month before it was sports clubs; and so it goes on. I would perhaps be more sympathetic to using the rating system as a means of relief if the politicians who are often responsible for calling for those benefits were not the same ones who call for more money to be spent on this or that. I am looking in a particular direction, but I could probably look around the whole place and apply that statement. It is a local taxation system, not a benefits system. If sectors need to be supported we should look to other ways of doing that, rather than immediately jumping to the conclusions that the rating system is the best vehicle for delivering help and that it is somehow not real money.

Any revenue forgone is less money for public expenditure, and we still have to raise similar amounts of money. Every pound raised in business rates is a pound that supplements our Barnett share. It goes to hospitals, schools, roads and council services; it does not disappear into a black hole somewhere. We need to strike the right balance. Rebalancing the economy during the continuing downturn and through to recovery means keeping as much money in the control of local businesses as possible.

I have made the promise before and I make it again that we will not dip into those pockets any more than is necessary, until we have made all of the savings that are to be made in delivering efficient and effective regional government services. If there is a better way, I am keen to hear what it is, but it is not viable to re-engineer the rating system and change the way that rates are measured to somehow distribute the rating burden based on individual business performance. There are other taxes that do that, and, even if we were to find a simple way — no regional or local government in the world has managed that — it would takes years to implement.

Let us take a collective or cross-departmental approach to tackling the underlying issues and not simply look at rate bills. My colleague the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, is due to bring forward legislation on business improvement districts, and that is a good example of this. The rating system has a role to play in developing a policy that suits businesses, suits government and suits Northern Ireland. Let us not forget the direct investment that DSD is making in our towns and cities. We have already spent over £20 million in a three-year period on town centre public realm schemes, and another £40 million of planned spend is in the pipeline. Then there are the restore-and-revitalisation projects, funded since last year with £1·5 million plus another £1·5 million on town master plans. Towns in my constituency have benefited from that.

If anyone doubts that this is a worthwhile investment, they should look at the Newcastle experience, where footfall is up threefold. That is something that can make a real and lasting difference to the fortunes of our business community. For my part, and with your support, I will be focusing on getting the right balance back into the business rates system to help pay for investment and to fund efficient public services, recognising that it must act for business, not against it. I hope that Members will appreciate that we have taken the right approach, which is one of adopting Northern Ireland policies that are tailored and responsive to Northern Ireland needs. Devolution has allowed us to do that and to do things differently in Northern Ireland in a way that has benefited local businesses.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 28th May 2012

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I share his view in his closing remarks that we should be looking to have the economic levers available to us to adopt our own solutions that are tailored and targeted to our economic situation. The Committee for Finance and Personnel is keenly interested in the process of non-domestic revaluation, which is due to take effect from April 2015. What methodology will be used to ensure that robustness and objectivity are achieved in assessments? Can the Minister outline what the appeals procedure might be for non-domestic properties? He has been keen to allay any sense that this is likely to lead to a windfall or a substantial reduction in rates bills for properties. Can he suggest what he considers the overall impact of re-evaluation of non-domestic properties will be?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Chairman is quite right to say that that must be done on an objective basis. One of the reasons why it cannot be rushed is that we have to be able to stand up and justify each individual rate bill, because there will be an appeals mechanism, which will be as it is at present. Where business owners do not believe that their properties have been properly assessed, they will be able to challenge that right up to court level. The first thing that we have to do is an analysis of the market, and we are starting that now. That information will come from a number of sources. Forms will be sent out to businesses this year, and they will be sending us back information about rental values and other information on that. We will use all the information that comes back, including from professional bodies and chartered surveyors who are carrying out work for us. We will then design valuation models for different sectors and for different trading locations and start applying that to individual properties. That requires considerable work on the ground because, of course, you can sometimes get things wrong when using a computer model. There will be quite a lot of footwork as we go around looking at how the results of the model tally with what we find on the ground.

So, there will be that to consider.

In 2013-14 we will probably apply that model to the entire stock and look through the figures to see whether we have got our estimations right, etc. By 2014, we will have to have established a rate for each of the properties. We need that to be done by at least September 2014, because councils will need to know what is happening to their rate base so that they can make judgements about the rates for the following year.

That is the kind of deadline and process that are involved. So, we have to go through quite an extensive process to have a model that we believe we can stand over.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan DUP 1:00 pm, 28th May 2012

: I thank the Minister for his statement, which contains a number of very good elements.

We know that we have a certain amount of money to raise from rates, but it depends how we break that up. There is a misconception out there. We are asked why the revaluation was cancelled for the non-domestic rate in the first place, but a lot of people are ignorant of the amount of money that we have to raise. So, why was the revaluation cancelled in the first place?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: In answer to the Committee Chairperson, I probably said why it was not possible to carry through such an analysis in 2010. We cannot simply say, “I think that it is a bit less. Fewer people are using those kinds of areas. Rental values may have gone done there and are maybe a bit higher here. Let’s do an estimation and get a rates bill.” As the Chairperson pointed out in his questions, those things will be rigorously tested, because the rates bill that someone gets is an overhead for their business. Therefore, if it is wrong, if they think that it is wrong, or if they think that it has been created in a shoddy way or that data were not sufficient, they will make sure that they challenge it.

Do not forgot that we have to collect a huge amount of data on what is happening with businesses and rental value and on what is happening to the various sectors and locations and the rental values in them. If you go back to 2010, you will see that the market was all over the place. Property values were up and down — down rather than up — and people were panicking, and traders or people who held property were trying to do anything to hold on to it.

Sometimes very low valuations or low rents were given just to get concessions into a new shopping centre. Long term, that shopping centre might have had huge potential, but, given that it was built in 2010, it had no potential. What do you do? Do you fill it up with short-term leases and give them way practically for nothing? How robust would those data have been? They would not have been robust. Therefore, any valuation that was done around that time would have been, at best, fairly shaky and, at worst, useless. For that reason, we made a conscious decision to delay the revaluation. It was in the interests of everyone to delay it, because there was no point in us putting huge resources into it and finding that we were getting all kinds of legal challenges.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

: I also thank the Minister for his statement. He will remember that, when we were discussing the Rates (Amendment) Bill, many businesses pointed towards business improvement districts as the way to go. Has the Department undertaken any work on that since that date?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: The business improvement districts fall under the responsibility of Department for Social Development, and work will be ongoing there. Indeed, I think that the Minister for Social Development intends to bring forward legislation on that fairly soon.

However, business improvement districts are not an alternative to the rating system. They allow for local businesses to come together to pay a supplementary rate of some sort that is to be spent on things in their area that they want it to be, whether that is improved security, improved environmental measures or marketing or whatever. The only question for DFP in that is whether the current rating system can be used to collect the money or whether the database that we have can be used to enable the source of the money from different businesses to be identified.

There will be small amounts of money locally. It is really to allow local businesses to do their bit in saying, “Here are choices that we want to make. Central government might not make these. We believe they are priorities and will have such an impact on our area that we will put some additional money in to make them happen.”

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement.

On Friday last, a young businessman called to my office. He opened a coffee kiosk in one of our shopping centres. He is being faced with a bill of £27,000 in rates. He employs six people. The burden of rates could lead to the closure of his fledgling business. Can the Minister take any further measures that will help smaller businesses, especially new businesses, regardless of their location?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: I do not know whether the £27,000 was a yearly rate bill or an accumulative rate bill with arrears, so I do not know the individual circumstances. Any business has, of course, the option of appealing the level of a rates bill, and I advise him to do that. Appeals are being dealt with much more quickly now.

As I already said to the Assembly, I will be looking at an evaluation of the small business rate relief scheme this year. If we can find ways to improve or extend it next year, we will do that. I cannot give definite details on that because I do not know what extra money may be available. However, it will be at no cost to existing ratepayers, because there is no point taking money off one group of ratepayers to give to another. We did that with the large business levy because we believed that there was an inequality, which has been sorted out.

As I said in the statement, only so much can be done through the rating system. The rating system cannot solve all the ills that are experienced through increased competition between businesses, changing shopping habits or because people have decided to shop in different ways, such as on-line. Those are things that the rates system will never sort out. We are sympathetic to the sort of issue the Member raised, and we will do what we can within the limits of the financial constraints that are imposed on us.

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

: I thank the Minister for his statement. Has there been much uptake of the opportunity around the shop window displays to improve the appearance of areas, and how is that being controlled to ensure that the displays are in line with the scheme’s intention?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: If they are not in line with the scheme — if, for example, a business simply decides to extend its own activities into the shop window — it will not get the rates relief. Those sorts of things will be checked out.

I do not have figures for the number of businesses that have taken up the scheme. We are now two months into the financial year, and we have had enquiries. I have seen some schemes in town centres. I saw one in the centre of Belfast the other day, so I know that it is beginning to happen. I hope that chambers of trade will work with local art colleges, charity groups, etc, to look at innovative ways to use shop windows so they can have attractive displays and at least give the appearance of activity. That was the whole purpose of the scheme. Since it was heavily supported by chambers of commerce in all the towns that I visited, and I may have been with nine or 10 chambers of commerce, hopefully they will encourage estate agents and shop owners to do that.

Photo of Adrian McQuillan Adrian McQuillan DUP

: I thank the Minister once again for his latest statement. Is location taken into account when valuing a property, whether town centre, out-of-town or rural?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: Location will be taken into consideration in so far as the rental value of a location will be reflective of its footfall and popularity. That, of course, is what the rates will be based on. You would expect that rental values of very popular locations, which lots of retailers want into, would go up, and the rates would reflect that. The rental values of places that have fallen in popularity will go down as landlords try to attract people into those properties. That will also be reflected in the rates. Location will be taken into consideration, but only through the mechanism of what the market says about the rental levels in those areas.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement today. I very much welcome the restatement of the various initiatives that the Executive and the Assembly have approved, on the basis that eaten bread is soon forgotten. I very much hope that the local media will reflect that, because we have been talking about very significant statistics with regard to the families that are being driven into poverty and the businesses that are being driven out of business.

I have been glad that I have been able to endorse and support what the Minister has done. However, there is the issue of the enterprise zones. I take some encouragement from the fact that, in his statement, the Minister has considered that issue and considered the problems. Perhaps there is a case to be made for localised initiatives on a pilot basis in the form of four to six enterprise zones with a defined lifetime. I think that the affordability issue and any possible legal challenges could be addressed that way. We should try to indicate that —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

: — we are prepared to think outside the box, if necessary.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: We have had a discussion on a number of occasions, in Question Time and whatnot, about enterprise zones in Northern Ireland, be they the enterprise zones that the Secretary of State believes we should be setting up and which have been set up elsewhere, or enterprise zones in town centres, as suggested by some retail organisations. I know that the Member has said that he believes that the difficulties could be overcome, but they will not be easily overcome. Can you imagine an enterprise zone stopping at the end of one street and the next bit of the street or the next street not having the same advantages, especially if the advantages are to be significant enough to help the area? You would get all forms of displacement, distortion of trade, etc. I have absolutely no doubt that there would be immense legal challenges to that.

Even if there were not legal challenges, there would be economic distortion. That is why, if we are going to look at local initiatives, it would be more beneficial in the longer term for local people to have the ability to decide to put in additional money through the bids process, define where they want the improvement district to be, give the money locally, have a say over it and make the judgement on it. That is more likely to be robust. I would prefer it if we were to look at more general applications of changes to the rates system, and I think that that is the route that we will have to continue going down.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

: I thank the Minister and welcome the statement and the measures contained therein. Minister, will you provide additional help for more than three years?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

: That is an excellent example of a very focused question; it was straight to the point.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

: Let us hear the focused answer.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: That is even more demanding, of course. I will give a focused answer. The current small business rates relief will stop. The legislation for it stops in 2015. However, we said that, beyond the revaluation, we would be looking for ways to help small businesses. In the consultation, we asked for suggestions on that. Not very many came through at that stage, other than the business improvement districts. As we approach 2015, businesses and business organisations will, hopefully, start to look at ways in which we can replace the small business rates relief. However, do not forget that the idea of the revaluation was to try to create the even playing field that did not exist because of the huge change that happened between 2001 and today.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:15 pm, 28th May 2012

: The current business rates for town centres reflect the 2005 rates evaluation. Does the Minister accept that the 20% discount that has been given may not be sufficient and that, if we really want to value our town centres and town centre retailers in the future, a much greater reassessment may be required? Why was England and Wales able to proceed with the 2010 revaluation, which might have had an even bigger impact than the 20%, when we could not?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: First, we are going to have a much greater reassessment. I do not know whether the Member has been listening. We are going to have a full rates assessment for 2015. It will be a rigorous examination of what has happened in the market. I outlined all the steps, from data collection to modelling to investigation of individual areas and premises to levying individual bills. This is a major, internationally recognised assessment that will take two-and-a-half years, which is the same length of time that it would take in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, he asked why they could have it in England but not here. All the indications and measures show that the turbulence in the property market in Northern Ireland, although not as great as that in the Irish Republic, was far more extensive than that in any other part of the United Kingdom. I explained why that turbulence in the property market would not have enabled us to revaluate the rates in a way that was robust, fair and that we could have stood over and that would not have made us subject to widespread appeal. That is the reason.

We are where we are. We are undertaking the revaluation, and it will be a full evaluation. In the meantime, I believe that the small business rates relief has compensated for whatever differences may have resulted from the necessary delay in the revaluation in 2010.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

: I also welcome the Minister’s statement. I note that he told us that the Environment Minister’s desk is strewn with planning applications from large retailers. Does the Minister agree that that is not good news for small shops? What can the Executive do collectively to ensure that we do not get into the situation that exists in Britain, where 60% of even modest-sized villages and towns have no shops at all?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: I was simply making the point that, when this was introduced, the Assembly and I were lambasted by some people for putting up a sign outside Northern Ireland that read, “Business is not welcome.” Apparently, large businesses would take their cue and not invest in Northern Ireland. At the time, I said that that was nonsense, and I rubbished it. I rubbished it to their faces when they came to see me, and some of them left with fairly red faces. They now look even more foolish than they did at that stage, because applications have, of course, continued to come in.

I did not say whether it was welcome or not welcome. There are some places where those planning applications will be of benefit to the location, and there are some where they will not. Of course, that is a job not for the Finance Minister but the Environment Minister. If the Member is not happy with some of the decisions that are made, he should direct his fire at Mr Attwood, not at me.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the initiatives that the Minister has introduced: the 50% empty premises relief scheme; the rebate scheme; the regional rate freeze; and, of course, the small business rate relief scheme, which averages £1,500. All that is very welcome for local businesses. I know that the Minister has met the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce and Belfast City Centre Management to discuss the dire situation that exists in Belfast City Council. Can the Minster assure the House that he will continue to engage with chambers of commerce and businesses across Northern Ireland, as he has done in the past year?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: I can. Let me say something about the engagement with the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. It brought forward the idea of dressing empty windows, and we responded to that. It brought forward the idea of a 50% discount on empty shops, and we responded to that. Some of the big city centre stores were being affected by the large retail levy, so the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce asked us to ensure that it is limited to a three-year period. We responded to that. Given the impact that it might have had on some of the large stores in Belfast city centre, it indicated that 20% was probably too high, and we responded to that.

I listened to chambers of trade and chambers of commerce during the consultation, and changes were made to the initial proposals to reflect all the aforementioned concerns. There were some things to which we could not respond, however. In addition, through the Department for Social Development, extensive work on street furniture and refurbishment has been carried out in Belfast city centre. Members have probably found that, when work is being done in their town, traders complain that it has the effect of cutting down on footfall, and so on, and although the work in Belfast was disruptive, the extensive investment has helped to brighten the city and make it a very attractive location.

Therefore, lots of work is being done across Departments, and we are listening. Despite what some people may say, we do not sit here with cloth ears. We put forward ideas. If those ideas can be improved on, I am not so proud that I will not say that somebody has a better idea than me. If somebody does, I will steal it and use it.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

: I thank the Minister for his statement. I congratulate him on his work as Finance Minister to try to help lessen the burden on our local businesses, especially independent retailers across our town centres. I also congratulate him for the benefit that the rate relief scheme has brought to over 1,300 properties in my constituency

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

: Do I detect a question?

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

: — to the value of around £1·2 million.

That having been said, the Minister referred to extending the programme. May I encourage him to give serious consideration to doing that?

Mr Wilson: Yes. [Laughter.]

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

: I thank the Minister for his statement and for outlining the generous nature of some of the changes that he has introduced. I am sure that he is aware of some of the surveys that have shown some parts of Northern Ireland to have higher rates of empty businesses than other parts of the UK, so heaven alone knows what the situation would be like if our rates had been roughly the average of those in the rest of the UK.

Has the Minister been able to get examples of best practice from other parts — for example, from England and Scotland — of programmes and proposals that could be implemented here to assist those empty businesses?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: I expect that England, Scotland and Wales could learn from us. We have a wider range of measures than that in other jurisdictions. However, as I said in answer to an earlier question, I am always open to any suggestions that come along. They will be given serious consideration. If they are affordable and workable, of course we will look at them.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

: I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement. It was fairly comprehensive. If the Act is to be an even greater success, however, does he not accept that the banks must come on board and be more constructive? I read continually about the 0·5% lending rate. I would like to know who qualifies for that rate, because it is certainly not those with a mortgage, an overdraft or a personal loan. Does he agree that we need the banks on board to make this a total success?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: The Member raises an issue, but it is probably the wrong morning to ask me about it, because before I came to the Chamber, I was with someone in my constituency and then someone in the office upstairs who, if their side of the story is correct or even half correct, told me the most horrific stories about the way in which banks seem to be determined to put businesses under. This week, I will speak with the banks concerned and, at some stage, I think that I will be at the point at which I will name some of them, because I am increasingly worried that some banks, or some bank managers, seem to be totally cut off from reality and do not recognise that, although they have a commercial responsibility to their organisation, they have a civic responsibility to ensure that they do not stand in the way of economic progress in Northern Ireland.

Some Members:

: Hear, hear.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

: I do not pretend that there are easy answers, but I suspect that a lot of businesses feeling crippled by rates will be disappointed by the statement, because, although it is very strong on reviewing what has been done, there is really nothing new in it that will bring immediate relief.

There have been many recent warnings of what is in store. The Minister’s colleague the Member of Parliament for North Antrim said recently that if something is not done urgently, we are going to hear more of the sound of shutters coming down and not going up again. The Minister’s statement says that he is:

“focusing on getting the right balance back into the business rates system.”

However, that may be too late for many. Can no current further relief be given to those who are in dire straits?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

: These are new measures that came into operation in April this year, and I spoke today about their review. It is not a historical review about something that we did three years ago and our saying how wonderful we are. Problems were drawn to our attention, and we responded quickly by introducing a relief scheme in this financial year. Let us look at the situation. This year, the manufacturing industry will save £90 million as a result of the relief that it receives. Small businesses will save £12 million in overheads as a result of the relief received. I cannot quantify what has been done for an average business by freezing rates for the past four years, or what will be done by freezing rates for the next three years. All I can say is that no other part of the United Kingdom has responded to businesses in this way. I explained to the House that revaluation cannot be done. If I could wave a magic wand and have premises revalued more quickly in a way that I could stand over, I would do it. However, for all the reasons that I outlined and despite all the work that has been done, revaluation cannot be done more quickly.

I bet the Member is sitting there thinking that I have not mentioned the last bit of his question. However, I am not going to dodge that. When constituents bombard their public representatives, and the news media also bombard us with a diet of how something has to be done and nothing is being done, it is easy for that to drip-feed into everybody’s psyche, even those who are politically involved. Within resources and constraints, we have done what we could, and we have done our best. If people think that there is some value in me, as Finance Minister, holding back on anything that could be reasonably done and watching businesses close down, I do not know what kind of world they live in. People can say that shutters are going to come down, but we have not, and will not, hold back. Let me be clear: shutters may come down but that will not be as a result of our being cloth-eared and not listening, or being indolent and not working. We will do what we can because we realise that people’s livelihoods are at stake.