Response to Northern Ireland business rates consultation

Our response to the Department of Finance consultation, November 2019

high street optometrist

The consultation

The Business Rates Public Consultation was launched on the 16 September 2019 to gather views on the future direction of the business rating system within Northern Ireland.

The AOP's response

The Association of Optometrists is a membership body for optometrists and other eye health professionals. We represent over 80% of the UK’s 15,000 optometrists. The majority of our members work in community optical practices, and business rates often represent one of the highest costs for these practices after staff and rent.

We have recently published a position statement on business rates, which calls for the current system across the UK to be reformed. As our statement explains, we are particularly concerned that online-only businesses have an unfair advantage over ‘bricks and mortar’ ones, including community optical practices, because they do not pay property based taxes. 

This unfairness could ultimately affect the eye healthcare of people in Northern Ireland. As our position statement explains, optometrists working in community optical practices deliver NHS-funded and private sight tests which are crucial in detecting eye diseases. 

Many community practices also provide additional NHS eye care services, taking pressure off other parts of the NHS and offering a more convenient local service for patients. In Northern Ireland these include enhanced glaucoma referral services, diagnosis and management of acute sudden onset eye conditions, and post-operative review of patients who have had cataract surgery.

NHS fees have been frozen for several years, and do not cover the costs of delivering sight tests. Optical practices therefore subsidise these eye healthcare services by selling glasses and contact lenses.  However, this is not a sustainable model for delivering core healthcare services – particularly since recent years have seen a steady rise in the number of patients who purchase spectacles and contact lenses online. 
As the proportion of people shopping online increases, we think governments across the UK should act with urgency to make the business rates system fairer, by sharing the taxation burden more fairly between online-only businesses and others. This would help to protect our high streets, and ensure that community optical practices can continue to protect the eye health of local people in Northern Ireland and across the UK.