Minister of Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton, discussed European Investment Bank (EIB) funding in Northern Ireland during today’s Question Time. He described the EIB’s recent £150m loan for the North Belfast campus of the University of Ulster as “a real vote of confidence in the university, in Belfast and in Northern Ireland as a whole, and I look forward, over the next number of years as the project rolls out, to seeing that corner of our capital city redeveloped and regenerated for the benefit of not just Belfast but the whole Province.” The investment in the University of Ulster project is the first direct investment by EIB in Northern Ireland for more than ten years but the Minister hopes this will be just the start of more funding opportunities that will help develop the infrastructure in Northern Ireland (and not just from EIB).
The Minister also discussed the new non-domestic rates revaluation process which will come into effect in April 2015. The last revaluation of business properties was completed in 2003 and based on 2001 rental properties. The new process will be based on 2013 values and “is about restoring fairness in how the business rates burden is shared. It is essentially about rebalancing the same amount of business rates but using current values to share out the liability.” Mr Hamilton revealed that he has no plans to change the 50% rebate on vacant properties, an allowance that he describes as “far more generous than the relief in place across the water”. The revaluation is “an attempt to rebalance the rating system so that it is fairer but still raises the same amount of money”.
During topical questions the Minister answered questions on the Going for Growth strategy, public sector reform and the housing market. Lord Morrow also took the opportunity to ask the Minister for his assessment of the current state of the Northern Ireland economy. Mr Hamilton was enthusiastic about the current situation saying “there are almost daily signs that our economy is moving in the right direction and that we are well on the road to economic recovery after five or six very difficult years in Northern Ireland” – the “economy is moving slowly but surely in the right direction, albeit with the odd bump on the road to recovery”.