Chief Executive of Belfast Chamber Simon Hamilton has warned piecemeal solutions and outdated responses to the business rates system will not help to address the real challenges facing the local economy.

Mr Hamilton made the statement in a detailed paper submission entitled Real Rates Reform which is Belfast Chamber’s response to the Department of Finance’s business rates Consultation. The paper puts forward a number of objectives and reforms including establishing a High Street Regeneration Fund, support for new businesses, recognition of the value of charities and the cultural sector to local economies, stimulating urban living and nurturing tourism.

“While we welcome the opportunity through this consultation to suggest reforms based on the vast experience of all our members, it is crucial that Government responds by bringing forward real reforms to the business rating system like those suggested by Belfast Chamber,” Mr Hamilton said.

His stark warning about the damaging impact to the economy in the absences of an effective development strategy comes against the backdrop of turbulent economic times for local businesses and in the absence of political mechanisms of support since the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.

Mr Hamilton believes wide-ranging reforms and strategic investments must be made to address the rapidly changing business landscape urgently.

“A recent survey revealed 94 per cent our members believe the current rating system to be unfair, especially those in the retail. In NI, retailing accounts for 12 per cent of the local economy, but pays about a quarter of all rates levied,” he said.

“As consumer habits change and more retail transactions take place online, bricks-and-mortar traders are facing increasing challenges to realise a profit. These businesses sit at the centre of a delicate business eco-system that underpins hospitality, tourism and the arts and give Belfast its unique character. We cannot afford to lose the economic and cultural vibrancy that’s crucial to sustain our economy going forward. We must act now.

“But to focus just on rates reform would be a mistake. There are many factors that need serious planning, support and investment to deliver tangible results for sustained growth in Belfast and beyond.

“There must be root and branch reform to redress the seriously damaging imbalances in the current rating system. This consultation provides the perfect opportunity to create a business-friendly blueprint for a flourishing economy. By getting this right now, we can make foundational changes to support current businesses and to attract more inward investment. Such development will result in job creation and contribute to a better quality of life for residents and tourists in Belfast.”

Local business owner and Belfast Chamber member Sam Shephard who runs the Juice Jar in Wellington Place said, “For many businesses across Belfast, rates are a huge overhead. It is essential that we have a fair business rates system that allows local businesses to compete and continue to grow and employ more people. Belfast city centre are more than just shops and businesses. They are part of the social fabric of the city and we need a rates system and other support that recognises the importance of our High Streets and City Centres and invests in sustaining and growing them into the future”.

Formed in 1912, the well-respected Belfast Chamber is recognised as the ‘voice for business’ as it represents over 500 companies across a range of sectors from retailers to hoteliers, solicitors to estate agents, property developers to media, tech companies to transport providers and aims to deal with a wide range of issues affecting trade and commerce in Belfast.