Selling Democracy by the Pound

for-sale-democracySome of my more regular readers will have noticed my absence from the these pages over the past coupe of months as I took some time out from retail cogitation to try my hand at politics.

My nomination came at a transitional point in my career as my company had just closed it’s last high street store after making the decision back in 2013 that we would move our business into other channels. I’m also looking at more ethical areas of retail so again the Green Party seemed a good fit.

I had actually intended to take a few months off to relax before launching a new business, and really accepted the candidacy as a paper exercise. But as with so many things I become involved in, I couldn’t just go through the motions.

Many people found it odd that I should have stood for the Green Party in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. Firstly because The Greens aren’t generally known as great lovers of business, and secondly because I had about as much chance of winning as I had of joining The Spice Girls on their next reunion tour.

But I didn’t go into the campaign expecting to win. I did it for the experience and to make a point. The point being that business can be a force for good in society. I’m currently exploring a concept that I, and a few others, have come to call social capitalism. It’s a movement I believe small and medium businesses should be an integral part of, and a party like the Greens, being so far untainted by the guiding fist of big corporates, seemed like a good place to start.

Familiar Ground

Political campaigning felt strangely familiar to me as a retailer. And really that should have been less of a surprise. An election is essentially a marketing exercise with yourself as the product. So it soon became obvious that many of the skills I’d learnt at the helm of a multi-channel retail business could be easily applied to the more esoteric ideals of politics.

This was an election that many people predicted would be won online, with social media playing a big part in the campaigning process. It certainly seemed that way to me as Facebook, Twitter and Email accounts became integral to my political routine using software that was obviously based on CRM systems that would be familiar to any customer service manager. And I did indeed find these channels to be an essential element to getting the message out there, just as I do in my retail business.

I also saw many other candidates fall foul of not paying enough attention to these avenues, as well as some that used them entirely inappropriately. Branding has also become an important aspect of any political party and The Green Party really seemed to get it’s act together on standardising the look of logos and marketing material, which was encouraging.

Hustings were no different in my mind to a simple sales pitch and I even found myself back standing behind a market stall, although this time my stock in trade was leaflets, manifestos and my own personality, such as it is.

Too Big Data

The other familiar aspect to all this though was that frequently cited phenomenon – Big Data. This is a buzzphrase I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. To me it should really be called ‘Too Big Data’.

I’ve always been suspicious of the idea that the more analysis you do, the more data you have, the more accurate your forecasts will be. This is self evidently not the case. And the plethora of polls, super-polls and polls of polls during the election on served to underline this point by being so spectacularly wrong. Not a single published poll correctly predicted the correct result. Although there are reports that some pollsters did have results that reflected the actual outcome, but they were so far adrift from others that they were nervous of publishing them.

As many retailers will attest, analyses are all very well, but ultimately there’s nothing remotely predictable about the great British public, as voters or consumers. In that context I suppose it was a stroke of genius on behalf of the Conservatives to employ a former market analyst as their campaign manager. One who arguably used these inaccurate polls in a feat of misdirection worthy of any accomplished prestidigitator.

Or maybe it just goes to prove that it’s not how much data you have, it’s how you choose to interpret it that counts.

Money Back Guarantee!

article-1279806-09A92C17000005DC-437_634x369So there you have it. My brief political career dashed on the rocks of our rather arcane electoral system and a bit of good old fashioned market manipulation.

With so many unexpected parallels with the worlds of marketing and retail, it has left me wondering even more about what really constitutes democracy.

If we’re increasingly going to be sold ideology and aspiration like packets of soap powder, maybe there should be the same sorts of checks and balances as there are in the world of consumer protection.

Perhaps if politicians were made to operate under the same stringent regulations that retailers have to abide by every day, we may see a few less un-kept promises and bit more attention paid to customer satisfaction.

In which case will we be entitled to a full refund if yet another government fails to perform as advertised?

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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

Let’s Not Plan Any Retail Street Parties Just Yet

bunting_2242499bFor many retail and economic pundits the term ‘anal-yst’ seems very apt.  So many of them seem to talk out of their backsides that it’s rare for me to find one that I agree with in broad terms.

Jon Copestake is one such individual, and I frequently find myself in agreement with the majority of his comments in Retail Week Magazine.  His comments today – Despite optimism, a UK retail recovery remains fragile – are no exception.

Along with many others, he’s quoted the LDC and Springboard figures that show a very tiny improvement in high street vacancy rates as part of the general consensus of optimism that seems to be building.  There were equally modest positive increments in retail sales figures which, whilst being better than expected, are still in the order of 1%.

Last week we saw breathless reports that the nebulous and somewhat metaphysical indicator known as ‘consumer confidence’ had finally recovered from the negative position it had been in for 10 years.  We were presumably expected to rejoice that this number had now reached a big fat zero, all of us clapping with one hand whilst frantically grasping handfuls of straws with the other.

Having spent a small portion of my academic career designing questionnaires, I’ve never been convinced by such a slippery concept.  Quite what real use a number based on asking a select sample of people if they’re likely to spend a few quid in the coming weeks is supposed to be eludes me.  I think it’s more something that retailers and investors cling on to as a comforter, intended to give the impression that we know the unknowable – the inside of a consumer’s head.

It’s hard to ignore the conclusion that the effort we all put it to predicting doom and gloom around the time of the collapse ultimately led to a self fulfilling conclusion.  But now we seem equally eager to ‘big up’ minuscule vacancy level movements in the order of 0.5% or a 0.4% – which in statistical significance terms are pretty much static – as evidence that good times are just around the corner.

The overall assessment from many retail analysts is that we’ll never see a return to the heady days of the early noughties.   ONS figures suggest that even though wage growth has edged ahead of inflation, most households are still around 10 years behind in real terms spending power.

Even if wages do rise in real terms there are just too many other ways for people to spend money now, assuming the average person ever really gets back to a point where they’ll feel they have the cash to splash around.  Factor in an ever imminent increase in mortgage rates, along with another housing price boom and the whole scenario starts to take on the familiar twists of the path that led us to disaster last time.

There are so many artificial factors driving the so-called recovery I think it’s far too early to be planning the next major roll-outs.  Low interest rates, the property bubble being inflated by government help to buy schemes, changes in weather patterns, even mis-sold PPI payouts are all shifting winds blowing across the sands of the retail landscape.  And we all know where building on sand gets us.

Whatever the numbers are based on there seems to be a mounting roar of expectation that the bunting will be out for a great big retail street party any day now.  Something of a turnaround from the interminable reports of the exact opposite a couple of years ago.  Personally I’m far from convinced that what we’re feeling are the positive winds of change and more worried that the rush of air could just be the prelude to another almighty slap right in our over-eager little faces.

High street decline – Re-task or re-think?

6741713-a-decaying-and-rusty-street-sign-for-a-high-street-representing-commercail-and-retail-in-decline

There’s been much talk  from various quarters about needing to come terms with the idea that the high street is dying.  Bill Grimesy has set this as the starting point in many discussions, and more recently the head of Ocado, Tim Steiner, expounded pretty similar views in a rather unhelpful gush of vitriol to the national press.

The rhetoric characteristically continues along the lines that we’d all better get used to it and deal with the reality.  ‘Dealing with it’ usually involves tacit agreement that shopping malls will be the main destination for consumers of the future and the rest of the slack will be taken up by the direct internet purchases, click and collect and m-commerce.

Ailing high streets, we’re told, will need to re-imagine themselves into areas that will attract people for a variety of reasons rather than just shopping.  Empty retail properties will be re-tasked into other uses, primarily residential.  There’s usually a raft of other ideas that come along in this mix.  Crèches, art galleries, community centres and various other esoteric uses are floated as essential ingredients in a new-age municipal Mecca that will sweep away the tumbleweeds and revitalise areas that people that are staying away from in droves right now.

It’s a view predicated on pragmatism that has some merit.  But I’d ask at what point does pragmatism slip into the realms of defeatism?  I think we’re a long way off from throwing in the towel on the high street, we just need the political will to deal with the underlying problems that have dogged it since investment landlords, property developers and city councillors first crawled out of the primordial slime.

Logical

I don’t argue with the logic of mixed uses in any retail environment, based as it is to a large extent on models already in existence in the shopping centres and mega-malls that are now a ubiquitous part of the UK consumer landscape.  It’s a truism that shoppers don’t just want to shop these days.  They want to drink coffee, browse the internet, have a free makeover or a life-changing experience on a climbing wall.  But with all this already available in the big  retail and recreational cathedrals, one has to wonder why exactly people would return to high streets, even after the proposed transformations are complete.  If all it’s going to take to bring these people back into their local areas is a few new service providers and a community centre, why hasn’t this already been done years ago?

parking_1879549cThe answer lies in the roots of all the problems currently besetting local high streets.  That of high rents, high rates, poor provision of expensive parking facilities, and the lack of a co-ordinated approach to tenant mix and shared space management.  Yes the same boring old issues I’ve been going on about for years, but they haven’t got any less injurious to retailers fortunes with age.

These shortcomings have already been trumpeted by various commentators and pundits, not to mention being detailed chapter and verse in the Portas Review.  It’s likely that Bill Grimesy will cover some or all of this same ground again when his own report is published in a few weeks.

None of this is news, certainly not to those retailers struggling in such areas, or to the landlords faced with empty properties as a result of previous failures.  The answer is to deal with these issues, not just talk about them.  The answer is not to give up on the high street model and dismantle it by stealth.

Small high streets are incubators for fresh retail ideas driven by entrepreneurs with a good idea and not much capital.  The fall in real terms value of commercial property should be a positive benefit in those circumstances, but by and large this is being undermined by landlords and developers who are desperately holding on, waiting for the boom times to return.

Add to this a government equally addicted to milking the high street cash cow through an iniquitous business rates system, and you don’t need to be an economic whizz kid to see why high street property has become toxic.

Re-model Re-task

By making a case for re-tasking or re-modelling empty shops we simply lay the groundwork for landlords and developers who would love to be able to turn empty shops into ‘luxury flats’ or demolish problem locations altogether and start again.  And who could blame them?

imagesBut in doing so we risk losing a valuable resource that we’ll probably never get back.  Stores that right now that could, and should, be let on viable rents to small retailers eager to get a foot on the commercial property ladder.  And I mean on proper long or medium term leases, not the fudgy panacea of the pop-up.

Once these units are gone those opportunities will disappear too.  The large malls aren’t interested in small retailers in the long term, no matter how much they might say they are, and once there’s no other alternative where will independents have left to go?

Yes some small retail units will likely be left in town centres, or included in redevelopments.  But then the reduction in availability will simply serve to support the high aspirations of landlords that have led us down the road we’re currently coming to the end of.  The fact that there are large numbers of empty units being left languishing by landlords and letting agents asking for frankly stupid rents should be seen as a potential resource, not a problem to be erased by sending in yet more deep pocketed developers.

Opportunity knocks

There is an opportunity right now to rescue the situation by forcing landlords back into the real world.  I’ve long advocated imposed rent control and local retail zoning, similar to the systems put in place to deal with down at heel areas in the USA in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  If a property is empty for a certain period of time, local authorities would be able to take over the administration and let the unit on a fair rent.  Landlords would be offered a return on investment at a set level above the current base rate and would of course lose liability for empty business rates.

This would go hand in hand with new planning powers to ensure a sensible tenant mix within given zones, thereby reducing the ‘usual suspect’ nature of small high streets, often populated with the same facades of betting shops, charity shops, coffee bars, mobile phone operators and the like.

atla-rent2-0120I’m all for the free market economy but high street decline is a socio-economic issue that needs to be managed at a local and national government level.  It has knock on effects to the well-being and safety of local citizens and the monetary and social costs associated with those factors.

I’m not averse to seeing retail units turned into other service type uses, but I am very much concerned that once permanent changes are made to retail properties, especially into residential, we’ll see a decline in the small independent sector that will simply strengthen the dominance of  large malls and developments that are far less supportive of those types of operations.

Re-tasking retail into other uses is certainly going to be an interest grabber for politicians and developers keen to make a killing out of empty units in town centres.  But if they also kill off the high street in the process I think they rest of us will all be the poorer for it. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”

Boiled Frogs and Business Rates

tax_1815371b

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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The Pearly Queen of the High Street?

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Whatever Mary Portas says in the various interviews she’s given about her new show ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’, Tuesday’s airing of the programme featuring Roman Road was little more than the same script we’ve seen played out in most of her recent series.  It may have been a fresh approach all those years ago when she first clattered on to our screens, but it’s now a tired, tawdry format that her production company have milked almost to death.  Indeed according to some of the local traders involved the experience was less than regal for many of them.

Amongst all the hype and hyperbole that’s surrounded the Mary’s involvement in the government’s high street revival plans, she’s always been right about one thing.  This is a serious issue, affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.  So it deserved rather more that what we saw on Tuesday.  This should have been a serious documentary.  Instead we got a barely watchable ‘show’ as in ‘show-biz’. 

As with most of her more recent programmes this was all about Mary, dressed up to the nines, posing for the cameras and promoting the Portas brand.  Mary sashaying about , Mary pointing and gesticulating and having staged encounters with traders and the general public.  Mary deep in discussion with the public about how well or otherwise she comes across on TV.

shopping-in-paris-thumb9157330Timing is everything

Time that should have been spent dealing with serious structural problems facing the area was wasted on jaunts to Paris and interminable tracking shots of Mary walking up and down rows of stalls talking about rain covers.  Finally we had her usual trademark finale set piece : This time a good old East End knees-up.  Just in case she hadn’t already patronised the locals enough.

Yet we’re told there wasn’t enough time in all this to feature progress she claims to have made with the council over parking charges and restrictions.  Probably the one thing that most of the retailers in the area were most concerned about.  Certainly something that was in her report and something she suddenly seems to have accepted as key to regeneration, albeit maybe only in interviews in the run up to her new show.  It was also something that was raised in her early brief encounter with the hairdressers in the programme.  Oddly enough we never seemed to return to them to discover what they thought of her ‘improvements’ to the area.

No Makeover

She claimed at the outset that it wasn’t going to be a makeover show, yet that’s exactly what we got.  When it came to it she couldn’t resist calling on her old standby approach : Pick one hapless retailer, march into their shop and spend a few moments deriding their wares. 

“Who’d buy that?” is one of her stock phrases, usually followed by a plaintive reply from the retailer that it’s one of their best lines.  Pure dismissal of the experience of the person that’s been there for a fair bit longer than she has, but good camera fodder, as she knows so well.  Then she sets about turning them into something more appealing.  Or rather her ‘team’ does.  Usually an easy win given that she usually picks on a store that even the most inexperienced shopkeeper could improve with a good clear-out and a lick of paint.

Yes the bric-a-brac shop looked great after the refit, and I totally agree that the person running the store was missing a trick.  But what she produced was a fully formed, niche retail experience.  Only problem is the niche customers are mostly in Mary’s head.  True, she found one or two in the local area, but one or two aren’t going spend enough to pay the proprietors rent, the rates and subsidise the council’s parking charges, nor would their business foot the bill for the fabulous refit, which I suspect was actually paid for by the TV company.  Mary’s hunch that these few boho locals were going to turn this person’s business around certainly didn’t justify the ludicrous idea that this small shop could be converted into an ‘anchor store’, 

The anchor store concept, which she borrowed from larger retail developments, requires a huge, already established, store to burst on the scene bringing in it’s loyal band of customers.  It’s not something you can create simply by dint of location, as appears to be the case here.  Certainly something that’s difficult to achieve from a standing start.  Still I suppose it made it all Mary’s thrashing around for ideas seem terribly scientific and purposeful.  But in the end it was just tinkering, and tinkering with someone else’s business at that.  But then that’s always easier to do when you don’t have to face the consequences a few months down the line, as one or two other stores Mary has ‘made-over’ in the past have reportedly done.

questions and answersQuestions, questions

The end of the show left more questions than answers.  What indeed had been done about the parking?  How were the original stallholders doing after Mary’s changes?  How many of them were left?  Were any of them removed to make way for her newcomers?  How were the existing Food & Beverage uses doing in the face of the new competition she’s introduced?

I’ve never doubted Mary’s veracity or her enthusiasm for what she’s doing. At the outset I was optimistic that she had the public profile as well as the chutzpah to fight the corner for retail against an obviously blasé government. 

But since her report was published she’s been swept away with the razzmatazz that was introduced by the government officials behind it.  The Willy Wonka Golden Ticket claims from the then minister responsible Grant Shapps.  The audition videos to became a Portas Pilot.  The branding of the whole experience itself.  It’s like it was all designed to take the focus off the most important issues facing retailers today : Rent, Rates and Parking, all of which were highlighted in Mary’s report only to be subsequently ignored by Shapps and his successor Mark Prisk. 

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that government spin doctors, much more accomplished in the dark arts of misdirection than Portas, used her wide eyed naïveté and dangled such shiny things in front of her.  She could easily have eschewed such distractions and pushed home her very well pitched report.  Refused to be driven off the course that she has constantly claimed to be on : That of dealing with the structural issues that have destroyed the high street over the past several years.  But when the chips were down she instead took the government’s shilling and disappeared down her usual rabbit hole of self promotion, hoopla and car crash, reality TV sham.

Infamy! Infamy!  They’ve all got it in for me! 

infamyIn a final twist of the ridiculous, Mary is now starting to claim that criticism of her is based on a political motive.  Where this originates from is a mystery to most commentators, certainly to me.  She’s quite right that she was given the perfect opportunity to cut through the political divides with her appointment by David Cameron all those moons ago.  But she blew it when let herself be sucked into the party machinery that she’s now crying foul of.  That has a lot less to do with politics and more with personal interest and ego.  Something no one has ever accused her of lacking in abundance.

If this first show is what we can expect as the culmination of her grand masterwork, I really don’t think it was worth the wait.  At best it was boring and mildly entertaining.  At worst it was selling retailers up the river for some cheap voyeurism and an easy TV fee. 

With the air date having apparently put back several times, it showed all the hallmarks of something cobbled together to try to fulfil the hopes of her TV production company.  The same company that has been tagging along since the Portas Pilot winners were announced and the same company that allegedly lobbied government over the most TV friendly locations to award the pilot money to.

In the end the only ratings values these people care about are the ones for the show, not those forcing many of the faces they’re using on screen out of business. 

Ultimately what we saw achieved nothing, except to fill a Portas sized hole in the Channel 4 schedule.  I like to think the livelihoods of independent retailers up and down the country are worth more than that.  Up until last night I thought Mary Portas felt the same.

Talking Shop

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Monday saw the first meeting of the The Future High Streets Forum.  Yet another talking shop put together by the government to talk about…shops.  This of course comes hot on the heels of the Portas review which pretty much identified all the problems and then set about trying to convince us that they could be dealt with by the judicious application of some showbiz fairy dust.

Of course when I say ‘hot on the heels’ I’m using an approved government timescale.  We’re now something like 18 months on since the Queen of Strops published her initial findings, and just over a year since the first audition tapes for her Pilot bandwagon were submitted and considered by an X-Factor panel comprised of herself and a certain Mr Green (AKA Grant Shapps).  Judging by the glacial speed of most government initiatives that’s probably Olympic standard.

After Shapp’s promotion to apologist-in-chief for the coalition, Mark Prisk was handed the delicately poisoned chalice of Minister for the High Street, a position created shortly after the Portas review was published in an attempt to show just how seriously the government regarded it.

Even though at first glance Prisk seemed like a much more able candidate for the position, his apparent lack of understanding about the problems we face seems to have eclipsed even his predecessors total ineptitude for effective policy making.  This has only been matched by his hitherto monumental lack of action, which may be why he’s letting a whole heap of ideas flood out now, like a backed up colon after a dodgy curry.

According to Mr Prisk, discussions at the first forum meeting focussed on speeding up the mentoring initiatives supposedly established during the set up of the Portas Pilots.  He also wants to offer Town Teams workshops, secondments and mentoring from over 30 organisations, including the British Council of Shopping Centres, the ACS and the British Parking Association to provide advice on aspects such as retail and tourism, the night time economy, public space design and age-accessibility.

So a veritable smorgasbord of limited options topped off  with a selection from the sweet trolley of the bleedin’ obvious!

Bedtime stories

As always this new improved super-forum is taking the approach that all the problems the high street faces are of it’s own making.  They start from the premise that none of us have the first idea why we ended up in this mess.  We’re all such terribly naive and inept businesspeople that we need a big brother or sister to hold our hands, read us a bedtime story and tell us where the monsters are hiding.  Apparently, reduced consumer demand and a failing economy can all be swept away with a few tired ideas, such as market days and pop-up shops.  Greedy intransigent landlords, hocked up to the eyeballs, and councils and governments ignoring economic imperitives can be dealt with by creating  a new logo and installing some extra street furniture.

That’s not to say that the people on the panel aren’t qualified to offer effective advice.  Far from it.  In fact I’ve got a lot of respect for most of them, even if they do seem to be predominately rooted in the property industry.  It’s just that there’s really nothing new to bring to the table now.  Most of the problems now being faced were identified and listed chapter and verse in the Portas review and most people, me included, agreed that the key areas for concern were in there.  If those in power chose to sideline the important issues with circus tricks and razzle-dazzle why should we think it’ll be any different this time around?

At the launch of the Portas Pilots both Mary and Grant Shapps were fond of saying how they’d accepted “nearly all” of the the points in her report.  Carefully  and disingenuously avoiding mention of the 3 main areas they ignored – high rents, high rates and high parking charges.  Without dealing with those points, the kinds of suggested improvements that are frequently trotted out by various experts are far removed from the key issues that have undermined the viability of the high street.  Superficial changes and local initiatives are all very well, but they’re cherries on the cake.  The problem is we don’t have much cake left after local and national government have finished taking their slices.

Why the government is so reluctant to take positive action on things like business rates really is beyond me now.  They seem to do nothing but thrash about looking for any option other than the most expedient solutions open to them as the people in charge.  The argument seems to be that they can’t be seen to be directly supporting private enterprise with public money.  Yet in the same breath they happily justify shovelling skip loads of cash in the direction of bankers who’ll just as blithely trouser huge wedges of the stuff in the guise of bonuses or just stack it up in the corner and gaze lovingly at it.  Not only is that direct support for one of the most unpopular and bloated sectors of private industry, it’s the very same sector that brought most of us to the door of ruin just a few years ago.  Yet we’re all supposed to be in dread of bankers moving their cash skimming operations to foreign climes, whereas Vince Cable seems to be pretty keen to see retailers head overseas as soon as humanly possible.

Do the math(s)!

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Business rates are, along with rents, the two most corrosive factors eating away at the heart of the high street today.  In a few days the second of two massive hikes in business rates will kick in, leaving the retail economy shouldering the burden of over half a billion pounds worth of additional taxes imposed over the past two years in this single tax alone.  Yet Mark Prisk seems not to have noticed.

In a statement about the new forum he said “Over the last year this Government has worked hard to help boost the high street, including initiatives to simplify planning, revamp the public realm, cut the business rate burden and revive local markets”.

Now I don’t know if he’d normally describe an increase of £525M as a ‘cut’ but if so I think perhaps he needs to buy a new abacus or at the very least have a word with a professional about providing appropriate medication.  Self delusion is one thing, but trying to drag the rest of us into his fantasy world is probably a step too far, even for a government minister.

Although to be fair, this isn’t the first time this bit of spin has been thrown out there.  Whilst watching the Andrew Marr show a year or so ago I almost pebbledashed my TV with fruity granola after hearing  Call-Me-Dave Cameron announce to all the world that his government were “tackling business rates”.  Again a definition of ‘tackling’ that I don’t think would have got him very far on the rugby fields of Eton.

Peddling this kind of PR piffle serves to demonstrate just how little the government really wants to tackle the core structural issues that are undermining every high street retailer today.  In the past 2 years they talked a lot and walked very little.  To put this into sharper context we need to realise that the sum total of all the cash handouts given to towns under the various soundbite schemes dreamt up by Shapps and Prisk amounts to little more than 8% of the increases in business rates imposed since they were announced.  If there really was a will to fix the high street we all know what would be the first demonstration of intent – a freeze in business rates in the last budget.  That hasn’t happened so just like last time we’re expected to be satisfied with the sop of yet another inquiry.

And timing is everything.  The deadline for last years Portas Pilot audition video submissions was coincidentally the day before £350M worth of extra rates bills had to be paid by retailers.  This year we have a new talking shop that meets less than a week after the chancellor smacked us in the mouth with a further £175M hike and expected us to to smile about it through broken teeth.

Lies, damned lies and politics

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We all know that no amount of pop-up talking shops and secondments are going to solve these structural issues.  Those in government know it too, and every time we swallow another piece of bullshit pseudo policy we’re letting them get away with the subterfuge.  There’s no substitute for proper action from a motivated and principled  government.  That’s something we need NOW, not in another year, not after yet another report or another raft of hair-brained ineffectual political stunts.

It’s going to take a lot more than just talk to get these problems solved.   Sadly though, it seems talk is still all we’re going to get.