Brutal business rates are shrinking our town

A FEW weeks ago the last pints were pulled in McGrath’s bar in Rathfriland Street.

That was a shame. The commercial and social fabric of our town has shrunk a little and the community of owners, staff, patrons and suppliers have lost something valuable. The sad reality is that the business has not been the first and will not be the last to surrender in the face of insurmountable economic challenge.

Our Ministers at Stormont and the more remote Ministers in London claim to empathise. They say they have our backs and are doing absolutely everything possible to help. I simply can’t accept that. I raised the issue of business rates with our Finance Minister Sammy Wilson recently when he visited Banbridge. Business rates are a blunt and brutal tax. Government selects an amount of money which it wants to raise and it then charges this against business properties based on the notional value of those properties. Absolutely no account is taken of ability to pay.

The charges are not linked in any way to profit or even turnover. Business rates are like fines. With taxes we pay a proportion of what we make as profit. With rates we pay even if we don’t make any profit. Rates take no account of staff or other running costs.

There is a fundamental unfairness which can be managed, even overlooked to some extent, when economic conditions are good but which is unacceptable in times of extreme economic jeopardy. My comment to Sammy Wilson was that surely it must be possible to come up with a fairer basis for a business levy. His response was that it is simply too difficult to come up with a better system.

Frankly that is not a good enough answer. Politicians and especially those with ministerial office owe us more than to shrug their shoulders and admit defeat.

If ministers paid for their constituency offices from their salaries without allowances funded by taxpayers they might have a better understanding of how critical it is to reform the rating system. It is tough out here in the real world. More effort and imagination is needed from those in charge.