Pressing The Reset Button On The Commercial Property Market

reset-przyciskI have this annoying habit of confusing two recently formed organisations.

Firstly there’s the Future High Street Summit, set up by high street campaigner Clare Rayner to bring together experts and activists concerned about the state of the great British town centre. It currently takes the form of a conference, open to anyone, but especially grassroots imagineers looking to contribute to process of re-building communities around a social and commercial hub.

Then we have The Future High Street Forum, set up by the government, supposedly to build on the work of the 2012 Mary Portas review. They have a smattering of academics and some fringe involvement from trade bodies, but largely it’s composed of vested interests, property investors, large corporate retailers and politicians appointed by a government department with no readily apparent clue about what is actually needed to deal with the problems in our town centres.

As you may be able to tell, even though they have similar names, there is a big difference between the aims and achievements of both bodies. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first Future High Street Summit earlier this year and found it a very interesting experience. Rather fittingly held in the futuristic environs of the National Space centre in Leicester, it comprised of two days of speakers, discussion groups and networking opportunities.

A number of knowledgeable speakers shared experiences and insights over the two days I was there. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. But overall there was a good cross-section of exemplars and I’d imagine everyone found something to inform their own activities and responsibilities. I certainly enjoyed the networking sections, chatting with people I already knew and making a few new acquaintances, some of which I’m still in touch with.

Where’s Brandon?

One notable absence though was the then Minister for High Streets, Brandon Lewis. He’d been billed as a speaker for some months, and having missed my opportunity to fire a question or two at him at his whistle stop visit to Retail Week Live conference a few weeks earlier, I was looking forward to getting a second chance in Leicester.

Brandon-Lewis_2886856bSadly though, at the last minute he discovered he had to somewhere else to be on that day. An important matter of state perhaps, or maybe it was just his turn to polish the Westminster cat. I remember checking his Twitter feed on the day to find out what could have been so important for him to break such a long standing engagement. I can’t remember it being anything earth shatteringly important. Certainly not as important as a conference bringing together people to discuss options for the very thing he was supposed to be responsible for at the time. Perhaps, like me, he got the two similarly named organisations mixed up and only realised his mistake at the last minute. That might have been an embarrassing admission for him, considering he was the chair of the government forum.

Whatever the reason the DCLG sent along a polished civil servant stand-in to read a prepared speech in impressive cut-glass tones. Rather more of a political treatise than an engaging presentation, it sounded like a lecture he’d already given a dozen times to the politically faithful. The questions piled up on my notepad, poised for moment when he would finally shut up. But, as his boss had done a few weeks before, he scuttled off with no time for in depth discussion of government policy. In the final analysis, perhaps the lack of engagement with attendees on both occasions speaks volumes about the government’s genuine attitude towards the issues.

We’re All Forum

Over the past year or so we’ve had a number of announcements from the Future High Streets Forum. Last year Government Minister Nick Boles suggested that hard to let stores could be re-tasked as residential properties, thus neatly erasing the problem of abandoned high streets and giving property developers free reign to make a lot of money out of the plight of inner cities.

No matter that the Forum was set up to help get these areas back into retail and other community uses. Let’s just solve the problem of over-rented, over-rated retail locations by turning them into luxury pied de terres. In one fell swoop this would provide hope to perfidious landlords who’ve backed themselves into a corner with fantasy loan to asset values and reduce the pool of available retail properties, thus inflating the market even more.

Their latest wheeze yet again involves the property hue of their spectrum of responsibility. A joint announcement from the Forum and the British Property Federation set out a plan for what Liz Peace of the BPF called a ‘collective ownership scheme’. The driving principle being that the disparate nature of property ownership on our high streets didn’t lend itself to the same sorts of controls available to the operators of shopping malls. Unusually for me, I agreed with Liz on this point. We do need curation on the high street. So many towns now are clogged up with the same usual suspect operators. from the ubiquitous mobile phone stores to the omnipresent coffee bars, many high streets are just plain boring.

Attack Of The Clones

The principle of the clone town is not new. It was identified some years ago and the phrase has long since slipped into the national lexicon, in many cases without much concern for what it actually means. Shopping centres have been quick to capitalise on this phenomenon and have applied fairly rigid tenant mix policies within their specific fiefdoms. I say ‘fairly’ rigid as it’s not unheard of for a big bucks offer to banish all concerns over duplicate use. You only have to look at Covent Garden and count the number of multinational perfume and body products brands selling virtually the same thing to see that.

p1060068-480x321But this more ordered approach to the shopping experience has paid dividends for mall operators and their tenants so it’s sensible that the idea should be applied to the high street. Of course the stumbling block is still the fractured nature of property ownership. Ultimately each landlord is more concerned with getting the best deal from a tenant, regardless of the type of use. What do they care if there’s already 6 other mobile phone store in town. If number 7 is prepared to a ludicrously speculative rent they’ll take their money.

The BPF’s solution to this is a system whereby landlords would pool resources and agree a common lettings policy. In one model being proposed they would each have shares in an overall property portfolio, shifting the focus away from individual lettings to a more holistic trading environment.

Curated High Streets

The idea of a curated high street is something I’ve long championed. But I’ve always proposed controls via more detailed planning laws. Instead of broad brush usage classes being factored into local plans, I’d have specific operator types defined by an elected team of high street managers, drawn from various parts of the property spheres. Town planners, local retail groups, landlords, property advisers and local consultants, maybe something like the town teams we already have, but with more accountability. There would be zoned areas within a well defined tenant mix policy which any new tenancy would have to comply with. This would prevent disconnected property interests simply chasing the money, regardless of duplicated use.

Of course this is something that could be handled by a self regulated body of property owners, but there would be a risk that vested interests could ultimately over-ride the what’s best for the local trading environment. Even if the income from these property groups was pooled by way of a shareholding collective, as suggested in one proposal from the BPF, There would always be potential for larger shareholders to dominate the group. And as I’ve described above, self regulation becomes rather malleable when there’s enough money on the table.

The other danger that I see from allowing such a collaboration between property managers is the possibility of terms fixing. Rents and other leasing policy issues could easily become entrenched, leaving tenants little room for negotiation in a target area. Instead of dealing with one landlord, they’d be dealing with a cabal. Lease negotiations are already skewed enough in favour of the landlords. We don’t want to be fomenting conditions for the construction of a cartel in all but name.

The Big Idea

Fellow town centre campaigner Dan Thompson and I have recently been kicking about a more radical solution to the problem of restrictive practices on the high street. We’ve posited the idea that empty properties could be purchased by a retail property trust and let to independent operators on a non-profit basis. That’s not to say the rents would be at giveaway levels – the idea would be to generate funds for other local projects as well as to expand the property portfolio – but rents would be kept sustainable with respect to other costs and the profitability of tenant’s businesses.

There would be some element of profit sharing involved along with principles of tenant mix, competition, and the curation of the overall trading environment. But small businesses and a variety of uses could be encouraged to keep an area varied and vibrant.

Rents would be pegged to factors other than the usual relentless pursuit of asset valuation. That way we could ensure some longevity for both the local trading environment and the businesses within it. Moreover pioneering entrepreneurs who move into the poorer trading zones, and then revitalise them through their own creativity, innovation and bloody hard work would get to reap the benefits when the locale becomes trendy and profitable. Rather than landlords immediately following the money and moving in yet more coffee bars, mobile phone shops and anyone else who dangles a big wad of cash in their general direction.

Ultimately the goal would be to press the reset button on the commercial property market, providing some alternative dimension to the rental tone and thus undermining the closed shop rent review stitch ups that usually lead to ratcheting rents and more literally closed shops.

Rising-RentI’m proposing a return to the days when landlords and property owners worked in conjunction with tenants to foster a long term relationship. Both were happy to receive realistic returns on their investments and were able to plan for the future, rather than constantly watching over their shoulder waiting for the next rent review or feverishly calculating the chances of your own survival when the shop next door is let at a blue sky rent that you know you’ll never be able to afford.

You can call me naive – indeed somebody did on Twitter shortly after I revealed this idea in my Retail Week column last week – but I really believe that if we’re to encourage future generations of high street pioneers, we need a cultural shift away from the idea that commercial property is the investment gift that keeps on giving.

In my view, the day landlords swapped the value of a solid reliable tenancy for beliefs in such fairytale concepts as upwards only rent reviews and ever increasing portfolio values was the day our high streets started to die.

So there you have it. A brief taster of my idea of a high street utopia. Somewhat different from that proposed by the future High Streets Forum and the BPF, but something that would be about long term, sustainable revitalization, not just a valuation on a balance sheet.

I believe that if the high street is to have a future, in whatever form, we need to be thinking these seemingly impossible thoughts. And if the government and their various advisers are serious about revitalisation they should be encouraging concepts that do more than prop up the property status quo. If anyone else wants to get step outside that box with me, please get in touch.

This blog was originally published as a guest article on the Future High Street Summit blog

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Boiled Frogs and Business Rates

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Amid all the recent furore over tax evasion or avoidance and the barely distinct line between them, I thought I’d throw my two penneth in, which of course I will fully declare to HMRC.

Let’s consider a new form of income tax.  One that simplifies all twists, turns and nuances of the current system.  A more straightforward tax that’s easier to assess, quicker to collect and almost completely unavoidable.

My proposal would be that everyone pays tax based their theoretical ability to earn.

HMRC could look at various parameters such as age and general health, but the most important of these would be your past employment history and your level of qualification.  Both of these would of course be indicators of the kinds of salary you could command on the open employment market.  We’d naturally have to assume the market was buoyant and that there would be an infinite number of suitable jobs available for every person able to take such a position.  But as we all know, assumption is the lingua franca of the taxman

I’d propose that specialised analysts would set a tariff for each person, based on what they could earn in these idealised set of circumstances.  This would effectively give a figure that each person should be paying, assuming they were working and in a job equivalent to their experience and education.  Then HMRC could simply issue demands based on these notional figures.  If, for example, you qualified as a teacher, you’d pay what a teacher should be earning.  If you’d qualified as a solicitor or a doctor, you’d pay based on that ability to earn a salary consummate with your potential.

Now the controversial bit : My system would mean you’d pay these taxes regardless of if you were actually doing the job you were qualified for or not.  If you trained as a brain surgeon, but decided that delving around in someone’s skull was no longer for you, no matter, you’d still pay the tax on a brain surgeon’s salary.  Even if you went off to work as a shelf stacker in your local caring, sharing supermarket, you’d still be expected to pay the brain surgeon’s tax.  Remember, your liability would be based on what you could be earning, rather than what you actually made.  Likewise, if your only qualification was  a silver swimming certificate but you somehow ended up as a city trader, you’d only pay tax based on your notional earnings potential, for example as a street cleaner or a career politician.  On second thoughts, scratch the latter example as that screws with my argument.

Fair’s fair

3123_tradersI know that all sounds terribly unfair, but  I’ve got that covered.  Returning to my city trading, swimming certificate holder, he would have his potential earnings re-assessed every 5 years or so, and if it was shown that he could now command a higher salary, due to a newly gained experience at pushing buttons and answering phones on the trading floor, he’d have his taxation level increased, usually to that of the highest paid city trader in operation.  He’d then pay tax at that level forever, even if he lost that fire in his belly and decided to pack it all in and wash cars for a living, he’d pay the tax of a top city boy.  Moreover all this income flowing to the chancellor’s eager grasp would be adjusted annually by the rate of inflation, just to make sure they kept up with current standards of living.  It’s only fair.

You see, under my system there’d be no need to fill out complicated tax forms, no necessity for tax allowances or adjustments based on your true circumstances.  Everyone would receive a tax demand calculated for them by HMRC and they’d have to pay it.  No arguments.  Even if you weren’t in work or you earned far less gross pay than the tax being demanded, you’d still have to find the money – Somehow.  After all, you’d have the ability to be able to earn the going rate for a particular job, so why should the tax inspector have take into account what you actually earn.  That demands far too much thought, effort and energy on behalf of busy government departments.  If you earn less than what you’re qualified for then that’s your decision. Your problem. You still pay the tax.

Sound equitable to you?  No, I thought not.

But then this, in case you haven’t already spotted my laboured attempt at a parallel,  is exactly the way the current system of business rates works for retailers, and other businesses.  It’s essentially a system of taxation based on a notional ability to earn money, regardless of the actual circumstances at the time or of our actual income.

The arguments for such a system as we were told last week on Radio 4 is that it’s easy to assess, easy to demand, and simple for businesses to pay.  Brandon Lewis went to some length in his interview on the BBC’s Face The Facts programme to stress just how important he thought certainty was for businesses, even if that certainty is that you’re being mercilessly ripped off by a complacent under-informed government.  To anyone outside the commercial property world, the idea that you’d pay a tax with no direct connection to actual revenue would seem ludicrous.  Yet it’s something retailers face every month when they have to find the money to pay this fixed, non-negotiable charge, regardless of how much money they’ve taken in the preceding weeks.  This ridiculous conceptual levy is now contributing to the fastest decline in the history of high street retail, yet it’s continuance is defended rigorously by ministers on a regular basis and apparently accepted as a reasonable proposition by the rest of us.

Our current system of business rates is a twisted perversion of what was originally a property tax intended to ensure local residents and businesses paid into local coffers for the provision of the local services they consume.  Refuse removal, emergency services, council officers and the like.  The simple idea being that the size of the property you occupied gave a rough guide to how much of these resources you’d call on in any given year.  It was a bit of a blunt instrument but it was broadly fair and of course we all accepted it as a civic responsibility.

Community Chest

Dem Monopoly Community Chest

That really went out of the window when the current system of Uniform Business Rate or UBR was introduced in 1990.  Under this system all businesses across the country paid into a central pot which was then shared out between local authorities across the country based on budget and need.  This took into account that some areas may have a lower potential to earn rates from business which meant that more central government subsidies were required.  Under UBR the richer areas would to some extent help support the poorer.  A fair and equitable system, in theory, except that under UBR the rates you paid were now assessed on the value of your property, rather than it’s area.  And there, hiding in the little detail of an adjustable annual multiplier linked to inflation, was the devil.

Now, instead of paying a proportion for your local facilities, you paid a property tax based on a deal you did with landlords on a commercial level, sometimes years in the past.  You were no longer paying into a community chest for your local hospitals and lollipop ladies, you were paying a tax to central government.  Not only that, it was a tax based on an assessment of the value of your property made by another, separate, government authority : The Valuation Office (VOA).  They assessed the rough value of your property based on an aggregation of the local rental ‘tone’ and set a tariff on each property to which the annual multiplier would be applied.  If this wasn’t complicated enough, the government then varied the annual multiplier based on a measure of inflation at an arbitrary point in the calendar, currently six months before any new charge would be due.

kneelingThe principle of course was that deals agreed to acquire a property in any area would give a rough guide to the affluence of the local population and their likely spending, which in turn would give some indication of the potential turnover of the business paying the tax.  A tenuous correlation at the best of times, one largely based on expectations and aspirations at a given moment.  Even so this probably kept rough pace with reality during times of normal trading, although it was hardly the basis for a fair and equitable system of taxation.  In fact it had more in common with more notorious historical levies such as the window tax or feudal tributes paid to Norman lords.

So, as with my mischievous suggestion in the opening paragraphs above, we have a system of taxation based on a theoretical assessment of earnings potential with no direct connection to ability to pay.  The really odd thing is that we all seem to accept this as a fair arrangement.  The various campaigns launched over recent years don’t seem to focus on the one salient point that for any tax to be fair it has to be related to actual earnings, not the murky notional musings of various self regulated government agencies.

The dictionary definition of a tax is : “a compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on workers’ income and business profits, or added to the cost of some goods, services, and transactions”.  Perhaps this is why the government continues to call them business ‘rates’ ; Harking back to the original principles where your property was ‘rated’ in relation to it’s consumption of local resources.  That’s plainly no longer the case, even more so now after recent revisions to rules that allow central government to hold on to a proportion of the rates collected by local councils paid into the central government pool.

Business rates are self evidently a tax in all but name, something we’re expected to overlook as an artefact of historical inertia and semantic subterfuge.  After all, if it was correctly named, we’d all expect there to be some deference to the normal rules by which taxation operates.

Alternatives

Most proposed alternatives to business rates seem to be founded on tweaking what we have now.  Base the annual multiplier on CPI rather than RPI has been the most popular to date, whilst the proposal to change to a land tax rather than a property tax has been around for a good while too.   In fact Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas recently launched a Private Members Bill to that effect.  There have also been a plethora of rebates and deferral schemes down the years for various business types or uplifts for others, none of which really fixes the inherent problems, especially for those businesses that don’t fulfil the very limited criteria.

One partial solution mooted several years ago was to carry out annual re-assessments using the £10M computer system developed by the government at the time, based on the principle of Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA).  Although, like something from the Hitchhiker’s Guide the the Galaxy, that apparently now lies unused, gathering dust in the corner of a VOA broom cupboard, probably in a locked filing cabinet beneath a sign saying ‘Beware of the Tiger” .

The most likely shift that anyone has remotely expected from successive governments has been the shift from RPI to CPI, a principle that’s lately been applied to other government measures where it works to their advantage, most notably things like pensions .  It’s also proposal was included as one of the recommendations in the Portas Review (recommendation 8) that the government has assured us all it’s  ‘accepted’ it still seems a long way off.  Yet more semantic tap dancing demonstrating that there’s a big difference between acceptance of an idea and actually doing anything about it.

Personally I think we’re well beyond the point where this would make any significant difference to the problem.  In what is an inherently unfair system we appear to be focussing on degrees of unfairness, rather than pressing for a complete overhaul.  To me that seems like playing into the governments hands.  The difference is marginal.  In January for example RPI stood at 3.3% while CPI was 2.7%.  When and if ministers do finally bend and shift to CPI, are we really all going to breathe a collective sigh of relief over a difference of 0.6% in our annual rates bills?

Keep On Squeezing

art-1024_251299kNone of these, with the possible exception of the land tax idea would re-establish the link between local service provision and the payment that was originally designed to cover the costs for these.  Neither would any of them have any relationship with ability to pay, as with virtually every other fair system of regular taxation.

We all seem to have blithely accepted a liability that has been foisted upon us all by a process of stealthy evolution from a simple local levy to a full-scale income tax.  Collectively we hand over billions to the government on this basis, calmly and with little protest.  The only reason we’re all getting out of our prams about it now is that falling commercial property values are no longer being reflected in this thoroughly disconnected system.

While property values remained flat or were adjusted in line with gradual increases in yield, UBR just about kept pace with turnover.  But the commercial property boom of the past 15 years pushed retail rents beyond sensible sustainability, which in turn drove comparable increases in rateable values.  The property crash of 2008 and the decline in consumer spending has now exposed the high water mark of unsustainable process.  Yet ministers carry on sucking the reservoir dry, terrified of losing a guaranteed income and convinced that this creaky mechanism should lumber on regardless of imminent collapse.

But there are workable alternatives.  Dr Adam Marshal from the BRC has advocated a local taxation regime based on profits, whilst I’ve long argued for a form of local purchase tax, similar to that in the USA.  Perhaps, even more radically, we could combine it with VAT and add the charge at the till as they do over there.  Then, not only would the burden of taxation be transparent to customers, it would show where a large proportion of the cost of operating a retail business lies.  Something I’m sure many of us would welcome in the face of customer and landlord perceptions that we’re all amassing a personal fortune on a daily basis.  Not only that, a direct link between the success of a local business and the income generated by local authorities would provide a sharper focus for councillors over issues that directly affect their performance, such as parking, local road infrastructure, planning, town management and the like.  Given the fact that many retailers trade in areas where they don’t get a vote in local elections, a levy based on local performance would at least partly negate the frequently overlooked paradox of taxation without representation.

Boiling the Frog

Isn’t it about time we all called for a re-invention of the whole process of  local business taxation?  Rather than being complicit in the continuation of the status quo or accepting yet more bolt on revisions to a discredited process.  Rather like the business rates system itself, we arrived at the position we’re in now by a series of incremental assumptions and expectations.  It’s akin to the old adage of the boiled frog, and only now as we start to feel the heat are we beginning to sweat.

Personally I’m all for jumping out of the pot right now, rather than settling for a little more seasoning in the water I’m being cooked in.

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