Northern Ireland

Rates debt in Northern Ireland doubles in last five years

Cash
Image caption Over £1bn was raised in rates revenue in Northern Ireland in 2011-12

The amount of rates debt in Northern Ireland has doubled in the last five years and now stands at £160m.

A report from the assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the body responsible for collecting rates, the Land and Property Service (LPS), must explore all ways to help those in rate arrears to pay their debts.

The recession has made the job of recovering rate debt more difficult.

In recent years, a further £53m worth of debt has been written off.

Vacant properties

The PAC report said it was essential that those paying rates were not subsidising those who are avoiding paying them.

It also said that when the rating of empty homes was introduced in October 2011, the body responsible for collection, the LPS, did not know the ownership details of 10,000 vacant properties.

Without that information no bill can be issued.

The committee's report found that recovering debt was not the only problem for LPS.

The report shows that the number of properties waiting for valuation at the end of March 2012 remained at over 26,000 and some alterations to domestic properties were taking more than two years to process.

'Fraud'

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Michaela Boyle MLA, said: "The committee recognises that the recent recession has made recovering rate debt more difficult.

"In these challenging economic times, Land & Property Services (LPS) which is responsible for ensuring that rates are collected, must explore all ways to help ratepayers in arrears pay their debt."

Ms Boyle said the PAC was also concerned about the level of fraud and error in housing benefit administered by LPS.

"It is significantly higher than for some other social security benefits - the figure of £4.2m included in the 2010-11 financial statements is truly shocking," she said.

"LPS faces many challenges in the next few years. Welfare reform, non-domestic revaluation and the review of public administration will all affect its operation.

'Difficulties'

"A previous PAC report, published in November 2008, found that LPS experienced significant difficulties when major reforms last took place; if LPS is to meet the new challenges it will need to be better prepared."

Land and Property Services is responsible for the billing and collection of rates on 840,000 properties in Northern Ireland.

Over £1bn was raised in rates revenue in 2011-12.

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