Are outside investors enjoying a ‘rates holiday’…?

BARRY McCaffrey reported in the Irish News today that “Belfast City Council last night moved to allay fears that home-owners would be hit with a £3.5 million rates hike after some of the city’s largest retail units escaped charges due to a mix-up”. The city councillors’ “anger” comes after they discovered Victoria Square and Ikea were left out of the city’s rating database for this year. The story added: “Ulster Unionist councillor Davy Brown called for an inquiry into how the problem could have happened. “The council officers told us that a number of these major developments were initially missed from the database but that the problem has now been sorted out,” he said. “But it’s not the first time that something like this has happened and I think it’s high time we were given answers as to what’s been going on. At the end of the day it’s the ratepayer who will have to pick up the shortfall.” I sincerely hope there is an inquiry, because, as Cllr Brown says, it’s not the first time it’s happened. In fact, it’s so common, one businessman I know well believes that – rather than a “mix-up” – it may even be government policy not to charge rates to certain companies. Which companies? Well, last year, when he checked the addresses in the government database for one town, virtually all the companies from outside Northern Ireland who had invested here since the Agreement had enjoyed a ‘rates holiday’. The same was true of certain companies in Belfast, including some in CastleCourt, currently our biggest shopping mall. It raises the question of whether the government has been trying to attract investment with the promise of this ‘sweetener’. When two MLAs were asked to look into it, my friend never heard from them again. And the database is no longer online, after various agencies were amalgamated in the Review of Public Administration. Who pays for the government turning a blind eye to these lost millions in revenue? Go figure. But as more and more local retailers go to the wall – thanks in part to exhorbitant rates charges – maybe this isn’t the end of the matter…

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