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.

images

Could The ‘Living Wage’ Be The Living End For Some Small Retailers?

Payday written

The number of major retailers lining up to announce impending pay increases seems to be growing by the day, seemingly inspired by the Chancellor’s surprising commitment to what he called a National Living Wage.

Cynics amongst us may say that one motivation for this uncharacteristically altruistic move was to wrong foot opposition parties such as Labour and The Greens who’ve advocated the pay reforms proposed by the Living Wage Foundation.

That said, George’s Osborne’s aspirations fall somewhat short of the LWF’s, but on the face of it we at least have a welcome move in the right direction.

The new rates don’t come in until next year but there may be an ulterior motivation for some larger retailers upping the wages ante now, and in some cases going beyond new statutory requirements. Not only does it gain them several kudos points in the PR arena, it also piles pressure onto their competitors to follow suit. Happily for employees, wages may just have become a much more competitive battleground.

Tesco for example are currently facing a crescendo of calls for them to chase those foreign upstarts Lidl down the Living Wage trail at a time they can ill afford to add further financial pressures to their already creaking P&L sheets.

Balance Sheet Shuffling

For most larger retailers though, paying the higher rate shouldn’t really be a problem. They may have to do some balance sheet shuffling, but it should only make a small dent in their profitability. Certainly there may be a few long faces at the next shareholder meeting, but a couple of extra glasses of champagne will probably help them see the positive side.

WolfsonI have to admit to some bemusement at the recent whinnying from Lord Wolfson about Next’s wage bill increasing by £27m as they also announced profits of nearly £350m. For someone reportedly earning £4m a year himself, it seems rather churlish to begrudge his staff a mere 8% dividend on the profits they helped to generate.

Recent reports about retailers such as Sports Direct allegedly sidestepping even minimum wage regulations don’t do our industry any favours either.

For smaller businesses though the picture is somewhat different and there’s growing disquiet about how many employers are ready and able to deal with the additional demands that will be made on their businesses when the new system starts to be phased in.

For many independent retailers already struggling with overheads increasing every year, the Living Wage is going to be much harder to deal with, especially as we now see that the denouement of the Chancellor’s plot was to pave the way for a shredding of the tax credit system.

Even though that has for the time being proven to be a cut too far, I think it’s far too early to breathe a sigh of relief about future attacks on the low waged economy.

The reliance on tax credits by some businesses has been seen as perversion of the system, but in the face of scant support elsewhere, they  have tangentially helped small businesses by topping up the wages of their lower paid staff.


For many independent retailers already struggling with overheads increasing every year, the Living Wage is going to be much harder to deal with


Whilst I agree that for larger operators it’s difficult to defend such subsidisation, for some smaller companies it’s something of a lifeline.  That’s not ideal, and I know most small businesses would much rather pay a decent wage without pushing their valued workforce onto state assistance, but often there’s little choice.

I know of shop owners trading at the very margins of profitability, often only drawing a minimal salary themselves, sometimes well below the minimum or living wage. They can’t simply magic the money to cover additional wages out of thin air without help on other overhead priorities.

Business rates

VOAMost notable amongst these is business rates, which was the subject of yet more empty political posturing at the Conservative Party Conference, followed by an announcement of a further delay on proposals for reform in the Autumn Statement.  There are now fears that this burden will be even more overwhelming in some areas after next years revaluation.

Many are also creaking under the weight of additional pension liabilities now being phased in. The alternatives for these retailers will be to further reduce staff numbers, break the law, or simply go under.

There are some councils who earlier this year proposed schemes where they would reduce business rates for companies who agree to pay the living wage.  However the devil is in the detail and many of the proposals only meet a small part of the additional costs imposed by the increase to the minimum wage.  Although I’m sure most small retailers would prefer to pay their staff more given the opportunity afforded by overheads savings elsewhere

Can’t pay Won’t pay?

There is of course the argument that if you can’t afford to pay a decent wage, you shouldn’t be in business anyway, but that seems to me to be an attitude that runs contrary to the ethos of the Living Wage principle.

Surely small business owners have the right to make a reasonable living as well as their staff, and options such as statutory profit or equity sharing could be considered for smaller employers and their employees.

I’m a supporter of the Living Wage and I’m delighted it’s finally starting to become a reality. But it can’t simply be waved into existence without some thought for the implications for companies who, no matter how much they may back the principle, may genuinely struggle to pay it.

Without a more comprehensive approach to the overall economic model that these businesses face, it’s likely that, for some of them, the Living Wage could easily become the living end.

falling-off-cliff_2046653c

This article is an updated and expanded version on my recent Retail Week column