We Need Rates Reform Not Magic Rabbits

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Maybe it has something to do with the proximity of Easter, but it’s long been the tradition for chancellors to pull a rabbit out of the hat during a budget speech, and last week there were leporidae leaping about all over the place in Westminster.

Speculation is that the abundance of feats of fiscal phantasmagoria this time, were simply there to divert attention away from the fact that George Osborne has spectacularly failed to hit any of his own arbitrarily set targets which we are supposed to be judging him on.  But whatever the reason, the showstopper for most retailers was the changes to business rates.

As usual, in the run up to this budget, there were calls from retail pressure groups for  there to be some serious moves towards rates reform, rather than yet more promises of reviews and recommendations.  I, along with other campaigners, joined that chorus, although I have to say that this time round I wasn’t expecting much in the way of harmony.  I thought the indications were there that we’d not see any real structural  change in the current broken system of local taxation.

On the whole I think I was right, but there were some more helpful than usual measures in George’s big red box this year.  Unfortunately though, on closer scrutiny they’re not quite as positive as they first seem.

Move to CPI

The one element of the package that could be described as structural was the move to CPI from RPI in the setting of rates multipliers.  CPI is the main indicator used in most other government departments to set things like pension increases, so it’s long been indefensible to use RPI for payments going the other way.

Indeed the last government’s own tame celebrity consultant, Mary Portas, had this as one of the key recommendations in her high street review back in the heady days of 2011.  Although, like many of her recommendations, this was also ignored.

So on the face of it, it’s a good move, until you realise that it’s not going to be implemented until 2020.  The subtext of that for me is that we’ll be keeping the same anachronistic system of setting a tax using notional valuations for at least another 5 years.  Something I had hoped would have been consigned to history some years ago.threshold-graphic-zoom

Revaluation Cycles 

More evidence supporting that depressing assumption came with the plan to change revaluation cycles to 3 years rather than the current 5.  Again reaffirming that the Chancellor sees a long term continuation of the current arrangements, albeit in a slightly more responsive way.  Although, as he’s been seen to play fast and loose with these cycles when it suits him, including delaying the 2015 revaluation by two years, one wonders how much value there really is in this commitment.

Doubled Thresholds

The other course in this smorgasbord of rates tweaks was the doubling of the threshold before properties become eligible to pay business rates.  This was increased from £6000 to £12000 in one fell swoop, with tapered relief on properties up to the £15000 mark.  Something I’m sure Osborne hoped would give him the wow factor with the small business community.

And yes, it’s a bold move.  But considering the speed with which rental tones have continued to move, even through the recession, this change means the system will have just about caught up with reality only to see it speed off into the distance again.  This is especially true of the very high rented areas like London where decent retail properties below £12000 are going to be even rarer than magic rabbits.

The subtext of that for me is that we’ll be keeping the same anachronistic system of setting a tax using notional valuations for at least another 5 years

And let’s not forget that there are still many relatively small retailers who will continue to fall between two stools, in premises too large and over-rented to benefit from these changes and yet not large enough to have the economies of scale to cope with other challenges on the horizon, such as changes to pension liabilities and the new National Living Wage.

Someone Else’s Money

We also need to remember that in these times of austerity and dwindling local authority budgets, Osborne announcing these generous reductions in tax take is really him writing cheques he knows he’ll never have to cash.  As we all know, it’s always easier to play with someone else’s money.

Having told councils last year that they will be retaining 100% of business rates in exchange for further reductions in central government grants, making changes that will significantly impact that income seems like a breathtakingly cynical bit of game playing.  And this will have a knock on effect in town centres and local communities where small stores are trying to do business.

So, as much as I’m pleased that, by some estimates, as many as 50% of smaller retailers could be taken out of the current business rates madness altogether, I’m struggling to accept these measures as anything other than a sop to distract us away from the real prize of proper, lasting and equitable local taxation reform for all on the high street.

Piecemeal

Until we do have that, I can only see more piecemeal concessions being bolted on to a system already creaking under it’s own inefficiencies.  We still need a mechanism that’s responsive to local business conditions.  One that can be influenced for good and bad by local council policies and can be applied equally across all types and sizes of business.

all-or-nothingMy personal preference is for a system of local purchase tax, similar to what we see in many US stores.  But I know I’m in a minority in favouring that.  Indeed the very idea was discounted early on in discussions over reform last year.

Much as I support small retailers, I also believe that all sizes of business should pay into the local economy through such taxation.  But a system that took proper account of trading patterns, would mean that smaller businesses would pay an amount appropriate and, above all affordable, in their particular circumstances.

My personal preference is for a system of local purchase tax, similar to what we see in many US stores.

I’m happy for those businesses that will benefit from these changes, and I hope that they will stimulate local economies and help small independent retailers weather the continuing storm on our high streets.  But I remain concerned that these measures are not going to divert us from the goal of seeking a root and branch reform of a rotten system that should have been retired many years ago.

If anything I think the measures announced in the budget suggest that rates reform is going to be kicked into the long grass for at least the term of the current parliament.  If that’s the case I guess all we can expect in the immediate future are a few more rabbits emerging from that undergrowth, making a leap for the Chancellor’s top hat.

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