Larne Business Forum seeks ‘independent audit’ of council finances

Larne Business Forum is to write to the Local Government Auditor calling for a detailed independent audit of value for money and financial management at Mid and East Antrim Council.
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In a statement issued after Monday evening’s rates-setting meeting which saw domestic rates increase by 9.78 per cent and non-domestic by 11.86 per cent, the business forum says it believes there is also “a strong case” for the Minister for the Communities to order an extraordinary audit of what it described as “this hapless council”.

“We also believe that there is a case for a Stormont cap to be introduced so that the relevant minister can cap spending of profligate councils such as MEABC.”

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The business group is also calling on the council to urgently publish the consultant’s report which identified a £7.2m shortfall in finances. Brian McRandal, chair of Larne Business Forum, said he was “deeply concerned and worried about the outcome of the rates-setting meeting”.

Main Street, Larne.  Local Democracy Reporting ServiceMain Street, Larne.  Local Democracy Reporting Service
Main Street, Larne. Local Democracy Reporting Service

He stated: “A domestic rate rise of 9.78% and non- domestic (business) rate increase of 11.86% was set and this will unequivocally have a detrimental effect on the businesses within Larne which already have virtually the highest business rates in Northern Ireland and have received no assistance over recent years due to the lack of a sitting Executive at Stormont.

“Non-domestic (business) rates are not like domestic rates in that they do not include waste collection or water charges and in reality, are just another massive tax on local business.

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“Business rates have never been modernised to reflect how business has changed with internet shopping etc. As an example, my own business pays waste and water charges of approximately £25,000 per year in addition to my rates bill which will be just under £40,000 this year once the increase is added.

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The non-domestic rate is increasing by 11.86 per cent. Pic:  Local Democracy Reporting ServiceThe non-domestic rate is increasing by 11.86 per cent. Pic:  Local Democracy Reporting Service
The non-domestic rate is increasing by 11.86 per cent. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service

“Local ratepayers want to know why its local council, which has had virtually the highest business rates in the UK for over a decade, should be running round trying to close playgrounds, close local toilets and choking the life out of its town centres businesses with car park charges in order to try to balance its books.”

Earlier this month, the council confirmed it was to drop car parking charges at Circular Road East and Exchange Road car parks in Larne and two car parks at Mount Street and one at Broughshane Street in Ballymena.

Commenting on the unprecedented rates hike on social media, a Larne business owner said: “As small business owners who also reside in the borough, this is a double hit to us.

“Businesses are struggling as it is without this extra financial burden. Our peers in England get small business relief of 100% meaning they pay no business rates yet we are being put under this pressure.

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“Very disappointing to see the names of the councillors who voted for this. All they have to do is walk around the town they represent and see the impact on small business owners.”

Another said: “I see nothing in return for what I pay as a small business already. It’s a joke. As a small business owner of 15 years, I’m totally baffled at how our council gets away with it.”

Meanwhile, the council says it is is facing “unprecedented financial challenges”.

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“Locally, these include an unexpected and sudden rates income shortfall for the next year of approximately £1.7m and additional projected council running costs of almost £12.2m over the next year due to a wide range of financial pressures, including soaring energy bills, rising staff costs, waste management fees and vehicle provision and maintenance.”

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In October, former Larne mayors Andy Wilson, a former Ulster Unionist councillor and Roy Craig, a former Independent, asked the council to publicly explain why the local authority has a £7m shortfall in its finances.

In a statement at the time, they said: “We made the points that the introduction of town centre car parking charges was done in an undemocratic manner and the now empty car parks proved it was not going to be the revenue-raising scheme that they had envisaged.

“Wider than that, we said that the public needs to be told why the council has got into such financial dire straits that they need to raise service charges left, right and centre.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter