Fox among the hares
Broadcaster Naomi McMullan had my number at the hustings events hosted by the NI Independent Retail Association in the Europa Hotel on Thursday when she branded me “a fox among the hares”.
Not an inappropriate elbow in the ribs for a sitting MLA who lined out alongside aspiring MLAs from the other four main parties who all serve on local councils.
But despite gatecrashing the newcomers’ event, I enjoyed enormously the opportunity to hear from the retail sector and small business owners about their priorities between now and 2020.
For some time now, I’ve been convinced that small retail businesses which constitute the spine of our local economy carry an unfair share of the rates burden. The solution in my view is to make others pay more and thus lessen the pressure on the butchers, the bakers, the florists, the cafe-owners, the opticians, the community pharmacists and the other businesses which ensure our main roads and town centres remain vibrant.
My first port of call for additional rates would be the titans of finance who hold some of the most valuable property in cities like Belfast but pay no rates because the land they own is idle: think the 16-acre city centre Sirocco site held by vulture fund Cerberus on which they paid zero rates while their ‘lowly’ neighbour, the fish and chip shop in Short Strand pays rates equivalent to a third of their rent.
It’s time to spread the burden of taxation by ensuring those landbanking development sites and holding onto derelict housing stock make a contribution too. That’s a task to which I plan to return in the next mandate at Stormont.
There’s a busy week ahead as we step out for St Patrick’s Day in Belfast with the SPAR Craic 10K — a fun-filled start to the Patron’s Saint Day which was inspired by the pre-parade fun run in St Louis, Missouri — before enjoying the day’s festivities. You can enjoy a short two-minute video of last year’s highlights on YouTube.
There is time to register — just — by phone (02890-611916) for anyone who fancies joining me on this annual outing. I’m even bringing additional green hair dye spray for the willing. See you at City Hall before the off at 9am on Thursday 17 March.
If you’re sufficiently recovered by Saturday evening, come join the Belfast community welcome at Shaftesbury Recreation Centre for the Syrian refugee families brought here before Christmas. Until now the community hasn’t been able to extend its own céad míle fáilte to our honoured guests. We’ll put that right on Saturday 19 March with a feast of music, food and goodwill.