1.89% rates rise - lowest since 1974 - struck despite calls for 0% increase; average bill to go up by £9.16 a year
Derry City & Strabane District Council has struck a 1.89% rate hike despite opposition from the SDLP, People Before Profit, independents and Aontú.
The rise was backed by Sinn Féin, the DUP, UUP and Alliance who said it was necessary to safeguard jobs and services.
There were heated exchanges at a meeting of the council yesterday with parties supporting the increase arguing that to strike a rate any lower would put services at risk.
Opponents meanwhile said it was unfair to burden ratepayers with higher bills during a pandemic.
The Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Brian Tierney, outlined what it will mean for citizens.
“Today DC&SDC has agreed its budget for the incoming 2021/22 financial year. As Mayor I want to record my thanks to members and officers for all of their work in what has been an extremely challenging rates process.
"I can confirm that DC&SDC has made and fixed a district rate of 30.9537 pence in the pound for non-domestic properties and 0.5103 pence in the pound for domestic properties for the year ending March 31, 2022. This represents a 1.89 per cent increase for all ratepayers, which when coupled with the regional rates freeze will see overall rates bills increase by 0.99 per cent.
“For an average domestic ratepayer in the council area this will see the current average domestic rates bill of £484.69 increase by £9.16 per annum or 18 pence per week.”
The mayor said lower than average property values means the average ratepayer will continue to pay lower bills than most other council areas.
Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman Mickey Cooper said: “This is an historic day - the lowest rate being struck since 1974 and that from our perspective is an unbelievable outcome given that less than a year ago we were envisaging a 15 per cent rates increase to deal with the impacts of COVID.
“Owing to £11m of Executive support we’ve created a scenario that, as the Finance Minister Conor Murphy requested, we strike a rate as low and as close to zero as possible without reducing council services and impacting council jobs.
“A proposed 1.89 per cent increase will allow our council to maintain delivery of front line services at current levels and protect the jobs of council workers delivering those services to ensure the council can cover the statutory pay rises we are currently negotiating with the trade unions.”
SDLP Councillor John Boyle said: “On behalf of the SDLP I think it important to go on record and say that we didn’t support this particular uplift. We felt that it would be wrong at this particular time to place an additional financial burden on local people through increasing their rates in the middle of a global pandemic.
“In the past year people have been forced out of work, they’ve witnessed their incomes drop, they’ve been on furlough, many people have been forced to rely on foodbanks and on top of that - if it wasn’t enough already - businesses have had no great opportunity to trade so many business owners will struggle to reopen when the lockdowns end and as such we felt that the last thing these hard-pressed people needed at this time was to receive a further rates bill beyond that which they would probably have struggled to pay in the last financial year.”
People Before Profit Councillors Shaun Harkin and Eamonn McCann said: "Despite a united call, the Executive refused to assist the Council with its goal of reaching a zero per cent rates increase with no cuts to services, jobs and workers wages.
"We believe it is the duty of the central government to help people during a crisis of this scale. Yet, instead of helping people, the Executive has compounded the problems many people face. Far too many people have been allowed to fall through the cracks. Financial assistance for many people has been too little, too late. It's been the opposite for big corporations and the politically connected.
"There's simply no justification for adding further burden to district ratepayers who have been struggling when the Executive is wasting funding on such a massive scale. The Covid support funding has been wasted on an RHI scale. Even now, draft budgets coming from Executive Ministers propose to slash funding for advice workers, mental health action and homeless services."
Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle said: “It is no secret that Council has been acting alongside community partners in the city over the last few months to ensure we got food and fuel out to those most in need."
He went on to attack Sinn Féin and said, "there were no impassioned speeches from their members when their Arts Minister granted money to Belfast-only venues, nor when they employed more and more Special Advisors - and especially when MLAs sat on their hands for three years whilst being paid."
UUP Alderman Derek Hussey said: "The majority of folk that I meet understand fully the need for rates to be paid in order to provide proper Council Services throughout our entire District. On that, I do not have an issue with the present proposal of an uplift that is the lowest for Council since 1973 at 1.89%
"My issue lies on the other side of the equation that is our Rates process, namely the Distribution of Rates benefit with equity. Therein I constantly meet with agreement throughout my own Derg EA and beyond."
The Mayor said: "I welcome today's decision by members to strike the rate at 1.89% which will allow Council to maintain the positive momentum that will facilitate progress and the delivery of a high standard of service in a sensible and sustainable way.
"This has been a year of significant pressure for local Councils who have been asked to step up and provide support and services on an exceptional level at substantial cost. Despite the challenges we have worked to adapt and risen to meet those demands, at a time when Council income has been effectively decimated.
"Thankfully we have been able to access significant government support, and coupled with the rates assistance for businesses, this has gone some way to alleviating pressures. It's vital that that support continues long into the next year as we continue to deal with the escalating fall-out from the Covid crisis.
"As we look towards the future and begin to move towards some form of normal life our focus must be on social and economic recovery. Just last week we signed the Heads of Terms for the £250m City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund investment plan that will bring about the positive transformation of our City and District. We need to provide Council with the resources needed to drive forward this integrated and ambitious suite of innovation, digital, health, regeneration and tourism projects and also secure Council's required match-funding contribution to the overall package of investment.
"I want to take this opportunity to thank officers for achieving the balanced budget before us today and Members for their careful consideration of the best outcome for this Council at this very challenging time."
In his report to Council members, Council's Lead Finance Officer Alfie Dallas, stressed that the marginal increase in rates would allow Council to deliver on its commitment to continue to provide the quality public services expected by citizens, and also invest in growth and development projects across the City and District. It will also assist Council in its ongoing response to the additional demands and budgetary pressures now being placed on Councils as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
"The last year has seen unprecedented financial challenges for our residents and businesses, he told members. "It is therefore more important than ever that a realistic rate is struck that recognises the challenges our ratepayers face but also sets Council on a sustainable footing to play a critical role in recovery and continue to provide the essential services our citizens require."
At the meeting members strongly stressed the need for the government to continue to offer rates support for businesses impacted by the pandemic into 2021/22.
Council's Chief Executive John Kelpie, told members that while this has been a difficult year, we should also reflect on the many positive achievements and continue to focus on progress, particularly regarding Council's substantial programme of capital investment.
"Over the last five years we have delivered over £60m in capital projects and a further £55m of projects are also progressing, many of which are already at an advanced stage," he revealed. "The new rates investment will now see further capital investment across our ambitious suits of community and strategic projects"
"Last week we saw the signing of single biggest investment package ever secured for this City and Region and with it the promise of 7,000 new jobs, £126m in new wages and £230m of GVA per annum generated for our area.
"A huge amount of work has gone into the rates process this year involving all tiers of staff to trim budgets and find savings. The result is a realistic and forward thinking plan that will enable us to continue on the positive path that we have set out.
"These are undoubtedly unique and challenging times but we can and will deliver on our commitment to the people of Derry and Strabane to realise the objectives and targets of the Strategic Inclusive Growth Plan and the creation of a vibrant and thriving City and District."
The Mayor ended the meeting by telling members that Council would now have the capacity to continue on its course working with all its partners to drive growth and investment and improve the wealth, prosperity and well-being of all citizens.
You can find out more about the full breakdown of information at https://www.derrystrabane.com/Subsites/Rates/Your-Rates-Explained