Rates burden must be fair and based on ability of residents to pay

Any rating system which could lead to people being forced to move from their homes because of a bill is, by definition, an unjust, unfair, cruel, inequitable and immoral one and, in my opinion, could not withstand a legal challenge under human rights legislation.

In principle, basing rates on capital values is a better method than the old rental system.

The problem is that, under the new system, capital value has been divorced from the ability of the home owner to pay the rates bill.

South Belfast has had a very active housing market for the last two decades and house prices have risen far faster than income or inflation.

In many cases people who have stayed put are seeing houses prices pushed up, often by developers interested in converting family homes into houses of multi-occupancy.

These home owners have no intention or desire to sell, but their rates bill is being forced up by the actions of others.

I moved to South Belfast to train as a nurse when I was 18. Shortly after, the ‘Troubles’ engulfed Belfast and, while South Belfast saw a lot of suffering, in relative terms it remained well integrated over large parts, a place where people wanted to live in a shared space.

We are now being penalised for wanting to live in harmony with our neighbours, irrespective of background.

At a time when the government’s ‘Shared Future’ document paints a vision of the way forward which looks a lot like what South Belfast is working towards, Mr Hanson has decided to tax that vision.

Despite Mr Hanson’s reassuring sound-bites:

  • more than half of all homes will see a reduction in their rates bills
  • the remaining 40 per cent will face an increase of less than £450
  • just 3 per cent will have an increase in excess of £350

For 17 out of the 19 wards of South Belfast (and a few other wards scattered throughout the North which have been ‘property hotspots’) the reality of the new system has been perverse and disproportionate.

For Malone ward, the average rates bill will increase by £935 or 86 per cent, followed by wards such as Stranmillis (£599 and 65 per cent), Windsor ( £332 and 63 per cent), Botanic (£259 and 52 per cent), Rosetta (£259 and 34 per cent) and Upper Malone (£256 and 28 per cent).

Overall in South Belfast, 90 per cent of homes will see their rates bill rise and the constituency increase as a whole is 28 per cent.

Although Labour councils in Britain are happy to ‘cap’ rates assessments, Mr Hanson has refused to make any concessions for those living on low fixed incomes such as a state pension or benefit or those living alone.

Ability to pay must be the overriding criterion and it is this which the SDLP will focus on in the rates campaign.

It will be looking for all-party support in furtherance of that aim for that is what the Assembly overwhelmingly voted for in 2002.

Unfortunately, the Assembly was put into suspension on 14 October 2002 before conclusion of the rates review.

Because of the intransigence of the DUP on power-sharing and the foot-dragging of Sinn Féin in relation to decommissioning, we have been deprived of the chance of being in the Assembly making decisions in the interests of everyone.

As a social democrat, my first concern is for pensioners, widows and other categories of single parents, those who are registered disabled, whether or not their houses have been adapted, or those who simply don’t have the money to pay.

That can best be achieved by a capping system or limiting a householder’s rates bill to a specified percentage of income.

In the coming weeks, cool heads and strong leadership will be needed if we are to undo Mr Hanson’s work and that makes the November 24th deadline so important.

by Carmel Hannah

First published in the South Belfast News 20th September 2006

Carmel Hanna is an SDLP MLA for South Belfast and Belfast City Councillor for Balmoral