With elections north and south, and a Brexit referendum to consider, 2016 is set to be a big year for Northern Ireland policy-wise.
But one of the issues most likely to affect the business community in the coming months is reform of the non-domestic rates system.
This is a central plank of the Northern Ireland economy – bringing in around half a billion pounds a year for the regional and local government.
The NI Department of Finance & Personnel (DFP) has issued a consultation and is seeking views from across public, private and third sectors. This consultation closes in 10 days (on January 25th) – I’d urge as many people as possible to make their views known.
In order to help stimulate debate, we organised a half-day conference on reform of business rates at QUB’s Riddel Hall this week. Speakers included DFP Permanent Secretary, David Sterling; Richard Johnston of Ulster University’s NI Centre for Economic Policy; Martin McTague of FSB; David Magor of Institute of Revenue Rating & Valuation; Aodhán Connolly of NI Retail Consortium; Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI; Seamus McAleevy of NI Council for Voluntary Action; and Derek McCallan of the NI Local Government Association.
Based on what we heard at the conference, my sense is that the department is unlikely to make any major changes to the current system for non-domestic rates following its review.
And while a radical overhaul is not likely, it seems fair to say that, if there is political will, a reformed NDR system will see a widening of the net and some minor re balancing among existing ratepayers. In particular, we may see a refocusing of the small business rates relief scheme and an end to 100% non-domestic rates relief for all charities.
But the door is still open for debate. So far there hasn’t been a “light-bulb moment”.
The Executive is facing mounting pressure to “balance the books” given the budget cuts announced by the UK Treasury in its Spending Review in November 2015.
The business community has 10 days to make its voice heard and ensure the Executive does its job whilst also creating a fair, workable tax system that is acceptable to the large majority of non-domestic rate payers.