Michele Shirlow Farm Week Column 14th Jan

To say that I was disheartened by the proposed ratesrevaluation of the hospitality sector here is an understatement. I was disappointed to hear about the new rates proposed for hotels, restaurants and bars across Northern Ireland, and deeply concerned about the likelihood of further closures at a time when our burgeoning tourism sector is growing and making an increasingly important contribution to the local economy.

We’ve already lost a number of restaurants, cafes and bars in Belfast and other places across the province. Margins have long been under pressure, impacting investment, employment and sustainability. I often wonder how some of our hospitality businesses are developing and managing to produceconsistently high quality and outstandingly tasty dishes day in and day out. As well as the prospect of increased rates, they are having to meet other challenges to bottom lines from staff costs for example. Our Taste of Ulster members tell me how difficult business has become. We do our utmost to assist them through our lobbying and will continue to do so over the proposed rates hike.

The new situation is bound to impact existing operators hard and to discourage those with new ideas, that the sector needs,to ensure growth continues. Many thousands of visitors are expected to visit our shores as a result of highly impressive and creative promotional activities such as the exciting Embrace a Giant Spirit which is now being rolled out by Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI. It’s an effective way of bringing revenue from overseas into the country.

We really ought to be encouraging investment in the sector to support this latest initiative, to develop employment opportunities and the economic wellbeing of rural communities in which tourism is fast becoming an important driver.

The industry needs to maintain existing operators and to encourage newcomers with different ideas to ensure the sort of vibrant and colourful sector that visitors understandably expect and demand. The rating proposals could have a far reaching impact on Northern Ireland’s tourism industry. It comes at a time when Northern Ireland has been recognised as The World’s Best Food Destination, a title won by Food NI at the World Travel Trade Congress in London in November 2018.

There needs, therefore, to be an urgent review of the Draft List of Values in the Non-Domestic Rates by Land and Property Services. This is why I support Hospitality Ulster and The Hotels Federation in their warnings about the likely damage of the current proposals and their call for action on a rating system for hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes which have been described, justifiably, as being “not fit for purpose”.

The rating model, based on turnover, is effectively another income tax, with success penalised and lack of profitability being ignored.

Business rates are clearly undermining the local hospitality sector which is paying some of the highest rates in the UK,with little in the way of rates relief schemes experienced by counterparts in Great Britain.  They are an additional cost that impacts our competitiveness, for example, against counterparts in the Republic of Ireland which also benefits from lower VAT.

We are all doing our utmost to promote food and drinktourism, and the overall economy, with the help of the hospitality sector, only for the sector’s commitment to long-term and sustainable growth to be jeopardised by a punitiverating system.