Testy exchanges as council divides over 6.5% rates hike for Derry ratepayers

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Derry City and Strabane District Council has struck a District Rates increase of 6.5 per cent for all ratepayers after testy exchanges in the Guildhall on Wednesday.

Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Boggs clashed with SDLP Group Leader Brian Tierney when the former claimed councillors unprepared to back the Council budget for 2024/25 were ‘abdicating their responsibilities’.

“There is still time for people to make proposals and see how we get it below 6.5 per cent but people are abdicating their responsibility, as happens, or, as seems to happen in this chamber every time we come round to February and we have to strike a rate, it is that we say 'no, zero rates increase this year'.

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“That doesn't work and I don't think, mayor, that it is lost on the general public that we have to pay for things.”


Colr. Boggs told the meeting the proposed rates increase of 6.5 per cent was required to fund the council’s capital programme as well as jobs and services.

“It baffles me how people can sit in this chamber - and it will be revisited during the year when councillors are hailing council officers for delivering things they have asked for but didn't want to commit to paying for them whenever it came round to the rates.

“We are ensuring that we are not losing jobs. We are ensuring we are not forcing council workers who also need an income, a fair income, we are ensuring they are not forced out onto picket lines, where I have no doubt people would then stand and applaud them for not having a fair pay rise but they are not willing to vote for it here today to ensure that they get it and they are ensuring that we continue to progress on strategic leisure.”

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Councillor Tierney hit back accusing Stormont of inflicting swingeing cuts on the Council through a 45% cut to the Rate Support Grant (RSG) for poorer council areas.

“We have a gap in the council finances of £4.6m. Just bear that figure in mind: £4.6m. If we were getting our fair share of the RSG it would be £6.25m. That's where the money is made up from. That's where we get the money. The money is in the bank but it is in Stormont's bank. It is not in our bank and we want it in our bank and if we had it in our bank then this council’s finances would be in a much better position.

“So it's not about jobs. It's not about services. It's not about people going on strike and all the spin that you are trying to put on it. It is not about that. It is about this council getting our fair share from Stormont that we need and deserve and you can laugh all you want. It's not that funny and I'll tell you who won't be laughing the ratepayers whose bills you are putting up this week.”

Colr. Tierney then took umbrage at a remark by the Mayor, Councillor Patricia Logue, over the SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood’s 2019 election pledge of stopping Brexit.

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“I also listened to your party leader when he stood on the mantra he was going to stop Brexit, so we are still waiting for that,” the mayor said.

To this Colr. Tierney interjected: “Excuse me, mayor, are you not supposed to be chairing this meeting as impartial and not making political points? Is that not the point of a chairperson because a mayor making political points like that there is not appropriate in my opinion and I would like a legal opinion on that mayor?”

During the course of the meeting People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin thanked the officer team for 'making clear the budgetary challenges that council faces' but said he would not supporting the rates increase.

He said Stormont needed to step in and support local government and ratepayers.

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“Last year, as people know, we put through an 8 per cent rates hike and we also put through millions in cuts to council services that were very, very painful.

“Now we are in a situation where our government is back and we have ministers in place and I believe it is no longer the case that central government isn't able to intervene here. Not only do we have a government in place but we are told there will be £3.3billion available to help with budgets right across the North.”

Colr. Harkin said Stormont should increase support to the council via the RSG, it should sign off on a business case for City of Derry Airport (CoDA) which costs the council £3.5m-a-year, and restore money lost from Peace Plus, good relations and other allocations.

“It is on that basis that I and People Before Profit can't support a 6.5 per cent rates increase. It is not acceptable for Stormont Ministers to ignore Derry and Strabane Council, to ignore the fact that our ratepayers have carried the burden of cuts from central government over the last two years and we as a council have to do everything that we can to push back against that,” he said.

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Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly, who also opposed the rates increase, said: “I want to go back to the whole issue of Stormont. I can only describe it as a Liz Taylor marriage-type situation, where it is often celebrated but it doesn't last long. We've had two years in here chair, saying get Stormont up-and-running and it is up-and-running and, unfortunately or fortunately, whatever way you want to look at it, it hasn’t lasted as long as one of Liz Taylor's marriages.

“Last week we decided to postpone this meeting in order to go to the saviours of Stormont and ask them to fix the RSG and, I think it was quite telling that Sinn Féin didn't want to do that and that was an indication to me and many other people that there is no point in going and asking them because thy are not going to do it and it looks as if that's what's happened here.”

The rate was eventually struck in the Guildhall on Wednesday with the support of Sinn Féin’s 18 councillors and the abstention of the DUP.

The SDLP, UUP, People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin and Independent Councillors Raymond Barr, Gary Donnelly and Paul Gallagher all voted against.

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The budget passed with 18 for, 17 against and five abstentions.

The rates increase will see an average rates bill increasing by £35.92 per annum or 69p per week. The regional rate, set by Central Government, will be determined by the end of March, and will have an impact on the overall rates bill.

Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Lead Finance Officer Alfie Dallas advised councillors that the 6.5 per cent increase was made up of three component parts.

Mr. Dallas said the first part comprised of a 3.17 per cent increase to cover statutory pressures and inflation in order to deliver a full suite of critical front line services for all ratepayers.

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The second element was made up of 1.83 per cent that has been set aside to offset central government grants cuts, mainly cuts to the Rates Support Grant, said Mr. Dallas.

The third element was made up of 1.5 per cent for direct investment into the council’s ‘ambitious capital programme’.

Mr. Dallas said this would build on total capital investment of £420m since the formation of the Derry City & Strabane District Council nearly ten years ago.

Projects being progressed include the DNA Museum, Acorn Farm, Daisyfield Sports Hub, North West Greenways Network and West Bank Cemetery.

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Also included is a transformative £240m programme of City Deal/ Inclusive Future Fund investment and with Outline Business Cases currently being submitted to Government, it is hoped to secure a Financial Deal by Spring/ Summer 2024.

Mr. Dallas said the 1.5 per cent increase would allow for an additional £210m in further capital development to be programmed in the year ahead.

Members were informed the 1.5 per cent rates investment as part of the 2024/25 rates process enables Council to plan ahead with the intention of delivering its strategic leisure projects at Templemore and Strabane including progression to detailed design and consultation.

The new agreed District rate for the year ending March 31, 2025 will be 37.7408p in the £ for Non-Domestic properties and of 0.6070p in the £ for Domestic properties.

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After the meeting Sinn Féin Council Group Leader Christopher Jackson said the hike was the lowest increase possible while ensuring council services and jobs are protected.

He said: “We recognise the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on households across Derry and Strabane so our focus has been to keep the rate as low as possible.

“That has obviously been a huge challenge and not least because of British Government cuts to the RSG which has had a disproportionate impact on Derry City and Strabane Council and the amount of money we have to invest.

“Obviously, we welcome the restoration of the power-sharing institutions and our hope is that local ministers will be able to again provide the kind of support for local government that previous Executives have.

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“But for now, we need a budget for the year ahead, the rate must be set and a huge amount of hard work has gone in by all parties and officials to keep the rate as low as possible while ensuring services are protected and council workers receives fair pay and working conditions.

“We are also very clear that the people of this council deserve first class services. Leisure facilities are a huge part of that and, through this rates process, we are committing to progressing the full reconstruction of the Riversdale and Templemore Leisure Centres.”

SDLP Council Group Leader Brian Tierney said the rates increase ‘will punish the worst off in our city and district at a time when families are already under serious financial pressure’.

He said: “Over the past few years we have seen the British government make huge real-terms cuts to the Rates Support Grant which supports councils like ours.

"We cannot simply pass the consequences of this harmful Tory policy on to ratepayers here who have already suffered so much from austerity and the lack of government at Stormont.”