Ratepayers face rise to pay for services and district’s growth

Ratepayers face rise to pay for services and district’s growth

7 February 2024

RATEPAYERS will have to shell out an additional £37.46 a year to fund Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s near £73m budget in the new financial year.

Local politicians agreed the above inflation hike at their annual rates meeting on Monday night, but the decision wasn’t unanimous.

The increase was backed by Sinn Fein, the DUP and UUP, but opposed by the SDLP, with Alliance’s five councillors abstaining.

The 6.41% increase was agreed by 26 votes to eight, but the total bill ratepayers will face is not yet known as the Northern Ireland Executive – which reconvened after a two-year hiatus on Saturday – has yet to set the regional rate which is also likely to increase.

Also on Monday night, a new non-domestic rate of 29.0334 pence was agreed in what was a relatively low key affair.

Council chairwoman Valerie Harte said the increase reflected the continuing economic challenges facing local authority, like all businesses and organisations. 

She said the increase will help the council deliver a range of projects that will improve the district’s economy and residents’ health and wellbeing.

Cllr Harte said that while the local authority faced the same financial challenges as all other Northern Ireland councils, its “collaborative approach with partners and communities offers a path to redesigning and delivering services that are responsive to local needs”. 

She continued: “We look forward to delivering on important benefits for our district and are confident that we will adapt to new opportunities and challenges as they emerge, all with the key objective of improving the lives and livelihoods of the people who live and work here.”

Cllr Harte said that in setting the rate the council must strike a balance recognising the challenging financial and economic situation and the need to continue to invest in services and communities. 

“We have worked hard for ratepayers to look at ways of increasing our revenue whilst also taking action to make savings,” she said, thanking councillors and officers for working together to create “positive solutions to reducing the rate whilst ensuring the council can continue to deliver services.”

The chairwoman said as the local authority faces more extreme challenges from climate change, it must also develop its response to the climate emergency to ensure this becomes engrained into its everyday approach across all services going forward.  

“The recent autumn floods had a devastating impact on some of our residents and businesses and the council will continue to support communities as they work to rebuild,” said Cllr Harte.

“In addition, we are developing a number of strategies and policies to promote sustainable development and ecological preservation which include a sustainability and climate change strategy and action plan and a biodiversity strategy.  

“A local climate adaptation plan is being developed as part of our climate action programme, which identifies the impacts of climate change on all its operations, including extreme flooding, storms, extreme heat and drought, coastal erosion and extreme cold in winter.”

Cllr Harte said the respective documents will build on the significant work already undertaken on climate emergency by the council in recent years and provide further direction for the future.

She continued: “There are many exciting projects planned and already underway which will act as catalysts to regenerate our city and towns, creating a stimulus for the area.  

“The council was one of three local authorities involved in the FASTER Project, installing high speed, public charging points for electric vehicles funded through €6.4M from the INTERREG VA programme. 

“Further public electric vehicle charging is also planned as part of the collaborative on-street residential chargepoint scheme.”

The chairwoman said the council will continue to implement its new tourism, arts, culture and heritage strategy to enhance its tourism offering and attract more footfall, supporting night time economy.  

She said the roll out of environmental improvement schemes this year in Bessbrook, Castlewellan, Rostrevor and Saintfield, will improve their physical infrastructure through enhanced public realm, better footpaths, street furniture, lighting and public seating. 

The district’s first citizen said having secured prestigious UNESCO Global Geopark status, which recognises Newry, Mourne and Down’s unique landscape and geology, the local authority will continue to work in tandem with landowners, businesses and communities, to use the natural heritage as a tool for sustainable tourism, biodiversity improvements, geological education and sustainably managed outdoor recreation.  

Cllr Harte said the local authority is committed to tackling health inequality within the district and will continue to deliver initiatives such as the physical activity referral scheme for those with health-related conditions who may benefit from regular physical activity under the guidance of qualified exercise professionals.

She added: “In the coming months, we will be working with local communities to develop community trails across our seven District Electoral Areas, identifying pathways for specific types of activities to make the outdoors more accessible on people’s doorsteps.

“A new sports development and wellbeing strategy will look at how we promote clubs and strengthen their governance and encourage club engagement through financial assistance schemes.”