6.41% rise in rates

6.41% rise in rates

7 February 2024

THE district’s hard pressed ratepayers are to be hit in the pocket with a 6.41% rates increase.

The above inflation hike was agreed at Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s annual rates meeting on Monday night, but the decision wasn’t unanimous.

Sinn Fein, DUP and Ulster Unionist councillors voted in favour of the increase — which initially was projected in the region of 15% — with the SDLP opposing the increase and Alliance abstaining during a recorded vote.

The increase is the largest the local authority has agreed since it was formed and is 0.55% higher than last year’s rise.

It took politicians 50 minutes to agree the rise to finance the local authority’s near £73m budget, with 26 in favour of the increase, eight opposed and all five Alliance councillors abstaining.

The 6.41% increase means ratepayers whose home is valued at £133,000 will pay £37.46 a year more in rates or £3.12 monthly. The non-domestic rate for business owners in the new financial year will be 29.0034 pence.

Council officials had been predicting a double digit rates increase when the process to look at budgets across all departments started in the autumn, with increased staff wages and insurance levies leaving the local authority facing increased costs.

Council chief executive Marie Ward said the increase will provide adequate financial resources to meet the organisation’s running costs in the new financial year.

She said she was also content that the local authority’s cash reserves are adequate to meet its medium term financial commitments.

Proposing the increase, Downpatrick councillor Oonagh Hanlon, Sinn Fein’s group leader on the council, said its representatives had worked closely with local authority finance officers over the past year. 

She said the increase “reflects the challenging times many are facing” and equated to an approximate rise of 78p per week for the average ratepayer. 

“It is imperative that the council continues to move forward with plans to regenerate our towns and city and improve our tourism offerings,” Cllr Hanlon continued.

“If we look across the district, there are exciting plans for development and we are leading this progress. Fiscal stability is critical to these plans.”

She said it would be impossible to reduce the rate further without cutting services, service level agreements with a wide range of groups and organisations and supporting community events and ensuring council jobs are safe.

DUP group leader Jonny Jackson said his party was committed to securing the lowest possible rate, in the context of considerable external pressures, with a need to reform business rates, reflecting commercial realities of business and trends.

“There is a responsibility on parties to scrutinise, question and consider the decisions which directly affect the lives of residents across the district,” he continued.

“Our group is confident that we have provided that scrutiny. We have engaged with management, reviewed and reflected on options which would have ultimately brought the rate down below last year’s level, but could not in good conscience inflict cuts no matter how minimal.”

Cllr Jackson said the realities of the rates increase were coupled with the challenging economic times which lie ahead.

He added: “Inflation has a direct impact on how this council does business and the new rate ensures most of those costs are absorbed, with additional internal measures generating savings of £670k, leaving us at a rate of 6.41% which sits far below what was originally proposed.”

The SDLP’s Pete Byrne, who suggested the proposed rate rise could be reduced by almost two per cent, said the move would not mean cutting services, but be achieved via better financial management.

He said the council was impacted by reduced financial support from central government via the rates support grant, with the re-evaluation of the district’s rates base also impacting on the organisation’s finances.

“We are saying we are open for business and instead of asking others to cut their cloth, we should be cutting ours,” Cllr Byrne continued.

“We want to grow events and capital projects in this district and fully support the increased pay for public sector workers. We understand that there would need to be some sort of increase, but we need to do a bit more work on it.”

Cllr Byrne added: “We need to roll up our sleeves and find savings in this council, get clarity on how we can use our capital fund to reduce our capital programme spend, so that we know that we are not biting off more than we can chew and don’t put the costs on the ratepayer.

“It’s a very disappointing paper in front of us and it’s very disappointing that parties are lapping it up saying we can’t do any more.

Alliance councillor Jill Truesdale said that while her party had concerns about the scale of the rates increase and the capital cost of the multi-million pound Mournes Gateway project and the new Newry Civic Centre development, it fully supported local authority workers seeking the pay deal they deserve.

Ulster Unionist David Taylor described the past few years as “particularly challenging” for the council, which, he said, has been trying to find ways to reduce the rate, while striking a balance with providing and protecting services.