More than 1,800 properties repossessed in North

More than 1,800 properties were repossessed in the North in the last year, it was revealed today.

The number of people ordered to surrender their keys after defaulting on mortgage payments emerged after figures showed that more than 80,000 householders and almost 19,000 business owners failed to pay their rates in 2009/10.

The total owned in rate arrears at the end of the last financial year in March was a record high £157m (€187.4m) - nearly two thirds of which was owned by the business sector.

In the same period, 3,658 writs or summons for repossession were issued, according to the NI Court Service.

Of those cases, 1,804 resulted in possession orders being made.

The rate arrears figures, which were released by the Land and Property Services (LPS), highlighted the major impact the recession is having on local businesses.

John Wilkinson, chief executive of LPS said: "The length of the current recession has put financial strain on a number of local businesses and this has been clearly shown by the growth in rating debt in this sector.

"Despite an increase in the rates collected by LPS, difficulties for local businesses has led to a growth in the figure of uncollected rates.

"The figure of uncollected debt stood at £157m (€187.4m) at March 31, 2010, but over £30m (€35.8m) of this has been collected in the last three months.

"The fact that nearly two thirds of the end of year figure relates to non-domestic customers is a cause of concern. This proportion has grown over the past year."

Mr Wilkinson appealed for businesses to contact LPS if they were in difficulties to discuss payment options.

Despite the level of arrears, last year saw a record level of rates collected in Northern Ireland - £961m (€1.15bn).

Mr Wilkinson warned that the LPS would pursue those who owe rates through the courts.

"Over the past year, we have issued 42,352 court processes against ratepayers who have defaulted on their payments and have been awarded 16,455 court decrees," he said.

"Both of these figures are increases on the previous year. The fact is that we do not want to take ratepayers to court, but if they fail to speak to us about payment options, we are left with no choice.

"I am pleased to note that in recent months there has been a growth in the number of both domestic and non-domestic ratepayers contacting us to discuss payment options.

"In almost all cases, we are able to agree an extended payment arrangement with the ratepayer. Obviously, when we allow ratepayers to pay smaller amounts over a longer period of time, this has an impact on our levels of debt.

"However, we believe it is more important to support people during this difficult period.

"We have also seen a growth in the number of ratepayers receiving Housing Benefit and other rate reliefs, as our discussions often bring to light the fact that callers are entitled to reliefs they were not aware of."

The Stormont Executive has introduced a number of measures designed to help businesses through the recession, including the Small Business Rate Relief scheme and a freeze in real terms in the regional rate.

Glyn Roberts Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said the relief measures were welcome.

"Given the depth of this recession, it is understandable that an increasing number of small business owners struggle to pay their rates bill," he said.

"I would urge any business owner who is facing such difficulty to contact the LPS immediately."

Mr Wilkinson added: "These are challenging times for both businesses and individuals across Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, with anticipated reductions in public expenditure, the income generated through rate collection will become even more important.

"In the last three years over £2.7bn (€3.22bn) has been invested locally as a result of rate collection.

"The fact remains, however, that there are a number of people who have the ability to pay but who refuse to.

"LPS will pursue these people through the courts to ensure honest ratepayers do not end up picking up the tab for them.

"Rates help pay for the public services we all enjoy, so we all have a responsibility to play our part."

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