‘Cut rates to tackle vacant shops’: Larne Forum chair urges

Dunluce Street in Larne. INLT-20-702-con
Dunluce Street in Larne. INLT-20-702-con

A local business leader is calling for rates on vacant properties to be slashed to cut town centre vacancy rates.

Chairman of Larne Traders Forum John Shannon wants action to be taken to tackle the 44 vacant units in Larne town centre.

With a current town centre vacancy rate of 18.3 per cent, John believes that there is a need to “think outside the box” to address the problem.

“If a shop is vacant for six months or more, I believe it should be offered for one third of the full rate in the first year, two thirds of the full rate in the second year, and then go up to the full rate from the third year on,” John told the Times.

“The pop-up shops which have appeared in the town recently are good, and with this rates relief people could try out their idea in a permanent store without the high level of outlay. It will let a new business get started.

“I would think that many traders in the town would be in favour of any initiative to get people into the town centre and to get more people into this area. It would bring life into the town centre.”

While the council sets the non-domestic rate, all rates relief schemes are governmened by central government policy and are administered through Land and Property Services.

A DoF spokesperson said: “The Department is carrying out a review of non domestic rates and following the recent public consultation, it will be up to the new Finance Minister and Executive to take forward any new policy proposals in this area.

“Currently non domestic vacant rating in Northern Ireland is set at 50 per cent of the occupied rate.

“ In addition, the rate relief scheme which provides a one year, 50 per cent rates discount for new occupiers of a property that has been vacant for at least one year was recently extended by the last Assembly until March 31 2017.

“The Department has also sought views on alternatives to the current Small Business Rate relief scheme. It is intended that the alternatives to be considered will include options to improve vacancy rates and help town centres.”

The council’s Economic Growth and Development committee discussed alternatives to the Small Business Relief Scheme on Monday.

The scheme provided a stepped reduction in rate bills for businesses based on an individual property’s Nett Annual Value (NAV). While the SBRR scheme has been extended until 2016/17, a report by Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre concluded that it provides little economic benefit in terms of increased employment or additional investment. Consequently, UUEPC recommended that the scheme be phased out as economic conditions improve.

Alternatives presented to council included providing match funding for business improvement districts, rates relief to encourage investment and regeneration, and rates relief to encourage town centre living and occupation of vacant premises.

The council report recommended that the 50 per cent rates relief for properties which had been vacant for 12 months should be retained, and called for research into reducing the vacancy time required to qualify for rates relief and extending the length of relief.

Mayor Billy Ashe requested that a council officer ask the department whether endorsing a regional scheme would prevent Mid and East Antrim having a local rates relief scheme if it so desired.

“One of the main priorities is to grow the local economy and I believe we should have this tool in our tool box rather than adhere to a regional scheme,” he said.

Chair Cllr Audrey Wales said she would pass on councillors’ comments and obtain information requested.