Rates (Temporary Rebate) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 2nd March 2015.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 12:45 pm, 2nd March 2015

The next item on the Order Paper is a motion to affirm the first of three statutory rules from the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I beg to move

That the Rates (Temporary Rebate) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be affirmed.

Before I deal with the statutory rule, I will set out some background to the measure. The purpose of the legislation is to extend the empty shops rates concession. That was introduced in April 2012 and was subsequently extended for a further two years in April 2013. The concession was introduced as an amendment to the Rates Amendment Act (Northern Ireland) 2012. At that time, a package of measures was introduced to rebalance the rating system to assist ailing businesses and to improve the appearance of our town and city centres.

The empty shops rates concession serves to provide a one-year concession which effectively allows 50% empty property relief to continue for one year when a qualifying property which has been empty for at least one year becomes occupied again.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

The current legislative provision under article 31D of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, as inserted by the Rates (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2012, permits applications for this concession until 31 March 2015. The window for applications will close soon and, following the success of this scheme, I have made the decision to extend the application period to the end of the current Budget period.

Unfortunately, there remains a need to provide whatever assistance we can to counteract the many shop closures and the effect that this has had on the vitality of our towns and cities. The extension of this concession will allow Land and Property Services (LPS) to continue to receive applications for the scheme up until 31 March 2016.

This scheme has been a huge success. So far, it has seen 375 new businesses get up and running across Northern Ireland. Also, since the scheme was introduced in April 2012, data that was produced by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium in February 2015 shows that the vacancy rate in Northern Ireland has reduced to 16·3%. Although the picture has improved slightly, I think that there is still a need for a scheme of this type.

The range of businesses that have benefited from the scheme include a fish market in Enniskillen, a children's clothes shop in Larne, a gift shop in Londonderry, a restaurant in Belfast city centre and a hotel in Ballycastle. They all created new jobs for local people.

I feel that this is a policy that makes a real difference to business start-ups, particularly in town centres and on arterial routes. Furthermore, it is a sensible measure in terms of cost. In all likelihood, the Executive would not have been getting any more revenue from these units through rates if they had continued to be empty. Therefore, it is effectively a cost-neutral policy.

Beyond that, after an initial period of reduced liability, these businesses will end up paying full rates after the difficult first year of trading is over, so it may even prove to bring in more money than it costs. Such has been the success of the scheme that similar schemes have now been introduced in all other parts of the United Kingdom. It was this Executive that led the way, having listened to and taken on board ideas from retailers and traders.

My Executive colleagues and members of the Finance and Personnel Committee have been advised on the detail of the statutory rule. The Committee indicated that it was content for applications to be received for the empty shops rates concession until 31 March 2016. Article 1 of the order sets out the citation and commencement. Article 2 provides for the amendment of article 31D of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, substituting the new end date of 31 March 2016.

In conclusion, I look forward to Members' comments and commend the Rates (Temporary Rebate) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 to the House.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 1:00 pm, 2nd March 2015

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank the Minister for his remarks. As has been outlined by the Minister, the purpose of the rule is to amend paragraph 2 of article 31D of the Rates (NI) Order 1977. This would allow an extension for applications to the empty retail premises rate rebates scheme beyond the present March 2015 closing date until the end of the present Budget period in March 2016.

In 2012, the Committee was first advised of the initial proposal to provide 50% relief for one year to a new occupier of an empty shop. The initial scheme was limited to one year so as to reduce any unwanted displacement and minimise any advantage over established traders, and it also allowed the Department to review the success of the scheme during the initial period.

The Department undertook an early review of the scheme in 2013, which indicated that, although there had been a reasonable number of successful applicants throughout the time of the scheme, they were not evenly spread throughout the North and, as a result, the scheme was extended for two years. The purpose of the rule is to provide a further extension of the scheme to the end of this Budget period on 31 March 2016. The Committee formally considered the statutory rule that is before the Assembly at its meeting on 18 February. It also considered the accompanying report from the Assembly's Examiner of Statutory Rules, which raised no issues by way of technical scrutiny.

The Committee agreed to recommend that statutory rule 48/2015, the Rates (Temporary Rebate) (Amendment) Order (NI) 2015, be affirmed by the Assembly. I therefore support the motion.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member, the Chairman of the Committee, for his comments. I agree with him. I believe that this is a scheme that is worth preserving as it has been a major success story for the Department and the Executive.

The Member mentioned the geographical spread of the 375 new premises that have opened as a result of the scheme. I think that we should celebrate the fact that 375, probably fast-approaching 400, as we speak, have been confirmed as using this relief. Those businesses are spread across every district council area of Northern Ireland. I commented on a few in my opening remarks. The bulk of those — 77 — are in the Belfast area, as you would probably expect them to be, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have visited many across Northern Ireland, as did my predecessor, and they do a range of things. That shows the success of the scheme.

The fact that the scheme has been extended for a further year will suggest to Members that the Department and I will do what we can to promote the scheme, but it is also incumbent on Members to promote the scheme in their own areas. By extending the scheme, we can help to ensure that more empty commercial properties are brought back into use, thereby improving the appearance of towns and creating jobs in communities. I ask Members to support the measure. I commend the order to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Rates (Temporary Rebate) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be affirmed.