Traders unable to open their premises in the aftermath of the fire at Primark in Belfast are to have their rates liability reduced to zero.
Fourteen city centre companies are caught inside the safety barrier erected around Bank Buildings in the aftermath of the blaze on August 28.
In a meeting with dozen of traders and landlords on Monday night, Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce issued guidance it obtained from Land and Property Services (LPS) which confirmed that 18 rateable premises, including offices, within the cordon will have their rateable value (NAV) reduced to £1 from the date of the fire.
The guidance from LPS said the zero liability would run “until such time as the situation changes”, with any overpayment of rates collected in advance, or paid by direct debit, set to be refunded.
Monday evening’s meeting at the Europa Hotel also heard of the frustration from businesses on the outskirts of the cordon, with some claiming their trade had been hit by as much as 80% since the fire.
Those traders have been offered two options by LPS.
Firstly, an extended payment arrangement can help businesses defer payments but, crucially, the total amount payable will not be reduced.
Alternatively, hardship rate relief can be offered in exceptional circumstances for businesses where their ability to trade has been seriously impacted. Although it does not represent a reduction in NAV, it would see bills temporarily reduced.
However, businesses have been told that the relief operates in arrears, and they must provide evidence to demonstrate how they have been impacted.
The Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce also advised companies to take advice on consequential loss from their insurers and legal advisors.
Calls for clarity around the timelines for re-opening access to Royal Avenue, Donegal Place and Castle Street were also voiced at the meeting.
Speaking afterwards, chamber president Rajesh Rana said: “Business owners from a wide range of sectors voiced their frustration regarding the continued lost trade, which is affecting not only businesses within the cordon and immediate area but also right across the city.”
Mr Rana said the chamber would meet with Secretary of State Karen Bradley today to seek further clarity.
“While we are doing everything within our power, we are not the decision-makers,” he added.
“There has never been more need for the Northern Ireland Executive to get back to power to help these businesses in the crucial run-up to Christmas.”