A local shop owner says he is in the process of closing his business after being hit with a huge rates bill increase as a result of now being expected to pay the rates he had received relief from during the pandemic.

Like many business owners, Joe Gilleece – of Gilleece’s Auto Spares in Brookeborough – received rates relief from Land and Property Services for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The rates relief I was given said it applied to all shops, and what I have is a shop on the main street, but they [Land and Property Services] are now claiming that because I sell car parts, that I’m not entitled to it,” said Joe.

Last October, he received a letter from Land and Property Services (LPS), notifying him that he would now have to pay the two years’ worth of rates he had received relief from during the pandemic.

“They sent me a bill for most of it in October of last year [2022],” he added, noting that his monthly rates bill had increased dramatically as a result. “I was paying £95 a month from April, 2022 to April 2023, and they (LPS) just sent me a new bill in October, 2022 and they’d raised it to £507 a month.”

Upon receiving the new bill, Joe said he stopped his direct debit, and instead paid the £95 he had previously been paying a month.

“But then they (LPS) billed me for the rest of it, and they were going to take me to court.

“I’m a small business – I can’t afford to start fighting big organisations, because if you lost the case, you would be bankrupt and that’d be it.

“So I’m paying it at the minute,” said Joe, noting that he has a total of £2,060.70 to pay, which has been broken down into increments that he will pay along with his regular rates bill over 10 months.

Seeking advice on what to do about his rates issue, Joe went to his accountant.

“She rang the LPS and nobody will take responsibility for anything,” claimed Joe.

“After that, I brought it down to Citizen’s Advice in Enniskillen, and they spent an hour on the phone trying to get through to somebody (at LPS) to see what was going on,” he said, adding: “You just hit a stone wall everywhere you go.”

Talking about the impact of his increased rates bill, Joe told this newspaper that he is now in the process of closing his business.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, LPS developed and delivered rates holidays of more than £530 million, as well as delivering £739 million in support grants to businesses.

“These vital interventions protected thousands of businesses and livelihoods.

“Where possible, rate holidays were automatically awarded to businesses based on information held by LPS.

“However, this was followed by a robust review of eligibility to make sure that businesses were not benefitting from a rate relief to which they were not entitled.

“If it was found that a business did not meet the eligibility criteria based on the actual use of the property, the rate holiday award was reversed.

“LPS has been engaging with impacted ratepayers, including to agree an affordable payment arrangement. Ratepayers can also contact LPS to request a review of the decision.”