A rise in business rates in Mid and East Antrim has prompted an appeal for bills to be brought into line with the Northern Ireland average over the next three years.
The domestic and non-domestic rate was struck at a special meeting of the borough council in Ballymena on Tuesday night.
The district rate increase represents a domestic rate of 0.4371 pence in the pound and a non-domestic rate of 30.9203 pence for 2020/21.
Householders will see a 1.74 per cent increase in their domestic bills while there will be a 2.9 per cent increase in non-domestic biills.
The rates were proposed by Ballymena Alliance Councillor Patricia O’Lynn, chair of the council’s Policy and Resources Committee and seconded by Councillor Andrew Wilson, the Ulster Unionist leader on council.
The council says that the rate is aimed at “mitigating the financial burden on residents and businesses whilst ensuring high quality frontline services and the delivery of major investments planned in Mid and East Antrim”.
These projects include the council’s private partnership bid for a Heathrow Logistics Hub, the ongoing development of digital infrastructure, facilitating the redevelopment of Glenarm, growing hotel provision, expansion of The Gobbins in Islandmagee, the regeneration of St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena and “substantial” investment in Carrickfergus town centre.
Council’s portion of the rates amounts to 48 per cent of the rates bills received by residents and businesses in Mid and East Antrim, with the remainder set by the Stormont Executive.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Ulster Unionist Councillor Maureen Morrow, said the striking of a domestic district rate increase at 1.74 per cent was achieved due to “continued efficiencies by council’s elected members and senior management team”.
Alliance leader on council, Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna described the rate as “fair and reasonable, below the rate of inflation and sustainable”.
“However, I think we can all agree that our town centres – Ballymena, Larne and Carrick – are struggling and find it very difficult with challenges to keep going within the business rates.
“It is not helped by our borough having the second highest rate in Northern ireland.
“I would just like to ask for council and officers to undertake some piece of work to see how they can be brought in line with the Northern Ireland average over the next three years.”
Larne Lough Councillor Gregg McKeen, DUP leader on council and chair of the Borough Grown Committee, described the rate as “balanced, responsible and realistic”.
He pointed out that the amalgamated Mid and East Antrim Council inherited a debt of £67m which has been reduced to £63m.
He attributed the reduction to “financial management, economic prudence and strong management to deliver a rate that is one of the lowest in Northern Ireland”.
He said that the borough has lost several thousand manufacturing jobs during the last number of years.
“We are planning a fightback and plan to work hard for our businesses. I think we are prudent. We are building for the future.”
TUV leader on council, Bannside Councillor Timothy Gaston said that a “balanced budget had been delivered for the first time”.
However, he questioned expenditure on the local authority’s ‘Connections’ magazine which is delivered free of charge to households across the borough, the future of the council’s Ardeevin building in Ballymena and The Gobbins cliff path, one of the council’s main tourist attractions in the borough and the future of free parking at the council’s carparks.
Carrick DUP Councillor Ald Billy Ashe commented: “MEA has set a fair and just rate which we endeavour to do each and every year since this council has been formed.
“We have done our part of the job and it is now over to regional government to set their side of the formula and then we and all ratepayers will see what that means to the individual householder.
“It is important to mention we in Mid and East Antrim have set this rate against a background of uncertainty and change as we have done in previous years and against a background of looking forward to being able to take advantage of any economic opportunities that may come our way.
“We are still about service improvements and enhancing frontline service to our constituents and of course being able to support our businesses and their workforce as we have already seen with power stations, JTI, Michelin, Wrightbus and currently with Schrader (now Sensata).
“All of which combined had the ability to create an economic shock to devastate this area for many years.
“However due to the forethought and speed of action by this council led by the chief executive and her staff these potential disasters were minimised, I wonder what the consequences would have been had the penny pinchers of yesterday had their way.
“Much noise has been made again at a late hour about car park charging and the potential income generation it would bring in, not only has there been no business cases prepared, no thought has been given to loss of income already derived from the car parks and no thought for the already hard-pressed town centre shops and offices as many more decide to use out of town shopping were parking is free.”
Sinn Fein Coast Road CouncillorJames McKeown described the rates rise as “sensible and prudent”.
The mayor added: “Our council has again struck a rate which is fair and reasonable – in line with our consistent approach which is to keep our rates as low as possible whilst ensuring delivery on our commitments to secure and create jobs in Mid and East Antrim, attract new investment, grow our tourism industry and other key objectives.
“We are all too aware of the challenging economic climate and its impact on citizens and businesses, and they have been at the heart of our decision-making when striking this rate.
“This rate was achieved despite our borough having the largest drop in GVA (Gross Value Added) previously and losing more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years.
“Local government reform is delivering for our ratepayers and we continue to see local decision-making bring substantial improvements for the citizens of the borough.”
Through Reval2020, 74,000 non-domestic properties, including shops, offices and factories, have been officially revalued for the first time since 2015.
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter