Rating: Empty Premises

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 8th November 2016.

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Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 2:00 pm, 8th November 2016

2. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Finance whether he will consider an exemption to the rating of empty homes legislation to address cases where following construction of a replacement farmhouse, the old farmhouse remains on the valuation list but is no longer occupied or under any planning requirement for demolition. (AQO 597/16-21)

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I can appreciate that farmers who vacate an old farmhouse will not be happy paying rates on it whilst it lies empty. However, this is something that all owners of empty homes face, and they have the same choice of letting it out, selling it on or continuing to pay the rates. If we were to grant an exemption, I think that it would have to apply to everyone holding a vacant residential property. To do so would lose the Executive many millions of pounds a year in revenue, and that money, as I said earlier, helps pay for essential public services and investment — health, education and everything else that we have responsibility for. Our local councils would also lose out. That said, if the farmhouse is in poor repair and is no longer habitable without substantial restoration work, it can be removed from the valuation list and rates will not be payable. In assessing whether a property can be occupied as a home, Land and Property Services will take into account the character of the property and whether a reasonable amount of work would render it habitable.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his response. Currently, a valuation of £20,000 or more makes a property liable for empty homes rating. Will the Minister look at the possibility of raising this threshold? I think that the threshold is very low, and, in effect, it means that many of the houses — there was one particular incident this week where a house has not been lived in for 32 years and, still and all, the owner received a £3,100 rates bill for five years' back rates.

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I vowed not to introduce more reliefs in the short time ahead. We will come forward with some proposals around small businesses. If the Member wants to write to me in that regard, he may do so.

He should be aware that I do receive a fair bit of correspondence on this. It strikes me as genuine correspondence from people who are in hardship, who have moved into a new home, as you say, maybe a generation ago. They find that it is not easy or possible to rent the home. They have no family who wish to use it, and, therefore, they have been left with a problem that is not easily resolved, and they end up paying a bill each year for which they do not feel they get a reward. I am not minded right now to increase the threshold, but I am aware of that hardship. If the Member wants to write to me, maybe we can explore certain instances within that.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo. Can the Minister inform the House whether he is considering any further exemptions on rating? I am thinking, for example, along the lines of credit unions.

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis an Chomhalta as an cheist sin agus as a chuid físe. I thank the Member for his visionary powers, because it just so happens that his Committee has written to me to ask whether I would consider rate relief for credit unions. That followed hot on the heels of the first letter that I received, also from the Committee, asking for relief from corporation tax for credit unions. I have no doubt that they will mount up as well. The Member, in his city, has made a big contribution to the credit union movement on this island. I think that credit unions do a great job for society and the community. I am happy to look at it. I am a member of a credit union. When they are managed prudently, they sometimes make some money and distribute that to their members. I think that, like everyone else, they have to make a contribution to keeping the lights lit in the public services that we have. I have received the letter, and I am happy to receive any further representations, but I would not make any promises. I would not make any withdrawals on this particular answer just at the minute.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Does the Minister consider that there is sufficient support for farmers in relation to rate relief?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I do not think that anyone believes that rate reliefs are sufficient in their sector, but, of course, farms and related buildings are not subject to rates at all. As well as that, for a farmer who needs to live on or near his or her farm, a reduction of 20% is applied to the capital value of the farmhouse. To use the term that Mr Durkan used, there are, in my view, generous reliefs for agricultural land and for farmhouses at this time.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Will the Minister take the opportunity to review the legislation governing the effective date at which a new property or domestic dwelling becomes eligible for the payment of rates and at least issue fresh guidelines?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I am happy to look at all those issues, and this is another issue that has come up in relation to the immediate payment of rates. I am looking forward to the day when some Member stands up and says that, because we need more money for education, for health or for economic regeneration, they are suggesting somewhere that we remove a relief from. I am not going to be that person just yet, although I will have some views on it next week. I am not happy to review the change suggested by the Member at this minute, but I am sympathetic. On the other hand, someone will have to pay the rates to keep this society going forward. When I reduced to zero the rates for community and amateur sports clubs, that was welcomed universally, but we are also going to have to find a way to say that we think we can find extra money, not more reliefs, from the community to fund the services that the community needs and demands.