We Need Rates Reform Not Magic Rabbits

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

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

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

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

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

Move to CPI

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

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

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

Revaluation Cycles 

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

Doubled Thresholds

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

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

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

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

Someone Else’s Money

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

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

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

Piecemeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are Small Retailers Becoming an Endangered Species?

Cecil_the_lion_in__3388298bThe illegal killing of Cecil the lion has generated many column inches about the protection of endangered species. In an admittedly tangential intellectual leap, I’ve been wondering if we should be adding another dying breed to the danger list – that of the independent retailer.

It seems that just like many animal populations in the wild, retailers who colonise once abandoned areas and make them fruitful again, tend to attract the unwanted attention of bigger game looking for an easy kill.

Currently the country’s richest landowner, the Duke of Westminster is planning to bulldoze a chunk of the Pimlico Road, regardless of the fact that he’ll be rolling the heavy machinery over a raft of long established and successful independent stores.

Unfortunately for them, it’s not enough that the property is earning more than it’s keep and probably appreciating faster than Tracy Emin’s unwashed bed socks. The assets must be sweated, even though they’re already soaked in years of perspiration, squeezed from the brows of those who’s businesses trade from them.

Passport to Pimlico

The Pimlico Road has become a magnet for interior designers and anyone looking for something a little out of the ordinary. The antithesis of what chain stores provide, by their very nature. Yet buoyed, no doubt, by the increased footfall these niche stores have inspired, Grosvenor’s plans are reportedly to develop gargantuan retail units that they believe will be more attractive to larger international brands.


Developers now fish in a gene pool that is becoming progressively more shallow, producing a retail mono-culture where they no longer understand or apparently care about the requirements for smaller operators, except as pop-ups of convenience or a bit of garnish to their main offer, usually in the form of RMUs.


And this isn’t an isolated case. We’ve seen similar changes in character to destinations such as Burlington Arcade, Spitalfeilds and Covent Garden. In central London, galleries in Cork Street and Dover Street have been lost, and even bespoke menswear stores and tailor’s workshops that gave streets like Savile Row their iconic status around the world have been ground under the developer’s heel. While London may be the vanguard for these culls at the moment, it’s a strategy that’s starting to gain ground, literally, around the whole of the UK.

When I entered the high street over 20 years ago, I remember even the most hard nosed property managers being supportive of smaller operators. Not only did they appreciate your staying power, but they saw your business as providing that extra spark and diversity that kept their developments attractive to both consumers and prospective tenants.

Retail SSI

There now seems only to be a headlong pitch towards bigger, brasher and more expensive spaces with scant regard for anything a smaller retailer, let alone a start-up, could occupy. New malls for example now rarely offer spaces small or affordable enough for indies to even contemplate.

Developers now fish in a gene pool that is becoming progressively more shallow, producing a retail mono-culture where they no longer understand or apparently care about the requirements for smaller operators, except as pop-ups of convenience or a bit of garnish to their main offer, usually in the form of RMUs.

protected-species-sign-on-gate-postSo where does that leave the small retailer of the future? If every time a secondary or tertiary location is popularised that’s taken as a cue to erase their existence, where will innovation and verve come from on the high street? Certainly not from the ‘me too’ generation of international brands, over-hyped and over here, rolling out virtually the same products and service models as every other chain store.

Perhaps in the same way that sites of special scientific interest are protected by government statute, we should have sites of special retail interest, where smaller businesses can be shielded from the worst excesses of re-development.And this isn’t just starry eyed idealism. Without space for new entrants into the retail landscape, where will our chain stores and national retailers of the future come from? We can’t expect every successful online business to have a yen for a more physical presence.

In the same way that vulnerable animals need to be protected from the sophisticated firepower of modern hunters, business innovation needs space to breed and expand, outside of what is rapidly becoming a very one sided fight.

Most conservationists will tell you that habitat erosion is one of the largest causes of extinction events. Maybe the world of retail property management also needs to learn that lesson before it’s too late.

This article was also published as one of my regular columns for Retail Week Magazine

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

Internet Purchase Tax ? Be Careful What You Wish For

Funny_Internet_Tax_Cartoon

Sometimes I’m baffled by the workings of the human mind.  For example, why would a retailer in the UK, already burdened with some of the most onerous and inequitable taxes imaginable, not least business rates, actually propose to the government that they introduce a new one, specifically aimed at retail?

Well it seems that’s exactly what Justin King, the Chief executive of Sainsburys has done.  He’s recently called for an internet purchase tax to be applied in the same way he thinks it’s being applied in the USA.  I say ‘he thinks’ because he seems to have misunderstood the reason this tax is being called for over there.

As I’m sure many of you will know, the US don’t have business rates like we have.  They have local purchase tax, which is often added only at the time of purchase.  Items are priced ‘plus taxes’ which are often variable from state to state and region to region.  Because websites can make sales across state and regional lines, many of them have been charging a different rate of tax to what should be paid in the areas where the purchase was made.  In some cases they haven’t charged the tax at all.

Is this right?  No of course it’s not.  But it has pretty much zip to do with the way retailers pay local taxes in the UK.  In the US they are probably quite right to be considering the Marketplace Fairness Act in order to ensure online retail is contributing to local coffers in the way it should.  Here we pay business rates at a flat rate based on the valuation of the property you occupy.  Internet retailers pay these too for distribution warehouses, offices and the like.

What gets up the nose of many retailers, me included to some extent, is that these companies can be based in locations where local rents and by association, local business rates are lower.  Whereas anyone in a high profile high street location would pay a lot more.  That’s because we pay rates based on notional valuations and not as a tax on revenue.  I’ve gone to some lengths to explain how batty I think this system is, but I don’t think introducing a completely new tax is going to make it any more sane.

Golden Goose

Yes it’s annoying and yes it seems unfair, but in essence it’s not.  Online retailers are still paying rates and taxes, but just not at the same level as a normal retailer.  I agree taxes and overhead costs for bricks an mortar retailers are too expensive, but I don’t agree that we should fix that by making online retail just as ridiculously costly.

That’s not levelling the playing field, that’s digging ourselves into a hole in the middle of the penalty box.

Many online retailers are golden eggalso bricks and mortar operations who already pay a fair share of business rates.  Their online sales may to a large extent be supporting other parts of their business.  Taxing them more isn’t going to improve that situation.  Increased taxation would also have to be passed on to customers, hence neatly strangling the golden goose that may be keeping many parts of the retail industry aloft.

There also seems to be some sort of naïve belief by Justin that ministers will conflate this new tax with business rates and seek to reduce one at the cost of another.  Whereas I don’t have quite the same touching faith in any chancellors spirit of fair play.  Especially not one who’s faced with the biggest book balancing challenge since Margaret Thatcher left charm school.

I’ve been warning about the prospect of an internet purchase tax for the past couple of years.  It’s low hanging fruit that I’m surprised the chancellor hasn’t already started to salivate over.

Governments consistently support the mantra that taxing success should not be the way to go and I largely agree.  Why apply what amounts to a punitive tax on internet based operations rather than reduce the taxation being applied to bricks and mortar?

Yes, retailers in the UK pay far too much tax, well the ones who actually pay tax do,  and certainly far too much in business rates.  But adding to the tax burden elsewhere is not going to solve that problem.  Even if such a tax was sold on the basis of a reduction in business rates across the board, it’ll be a safe bet that pretty soon afterwards that whole relationship will slip into the same grey area that local taxation resides in now.

Sunlit Soccer Net

Leveling The Playing Field?

It’s more likely that an internet purchase tax would be applied in the same way as airport tax, or insurance premium tax.  Just slapped on at a nominal rate which will then be increased gradually in successive budgets.  Pretty soon we’ll just see it as another one life’s certainties, just like any other stealth tax.  We’ll moan but we’ll pay it and maybe a few more businesses will go to the wall.

Moreover any government that introduces such a tax is effectively agreeing with me and many others that applying a flat tax business rate to every other business premises in the country is wrong.  If online retail should pay an overhead tax based on revenue then why not the same for bricks and mortar retailers?

If the conclusion to this debate is a fairer system of local taxation based on ability to pay and it’s applied to ALL retail operations, then I’m all for it.  But I very much doubt there’ll be any change to business rates as they stand now if such a tax were introduced. Maybe I’m just not very trusting of government ministers.  Or maybe I’m less naïve than Justin King.

Either way, let’s stop putting such ideas out there shall we?  After all you have to be careful what you wish for in this life, as sometimes you might just get it.

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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Freefall retail?

Shop to letWelcome to my new blog.   For my first post I thought I’d jump right in the deep end!

Evidence from the Local Data Company and Price Waterhouse Coopers yesterday highlighted the unprecedented number of store closures that have been seen in the last 12 months.  This was driven mainly by the gathering pace of large retail chains turning up their toes and other struggling companies letting leases lapse when they come to an end.

It’s hardly surprising to most of us out there at the sharp end of retail that the status quo can’t continue unabashed in the way that most property investors and some analysts seem to think it can.

Only last year I was embroiled in something of an online spat with the author of a report from CBRE who in my opinion was whistling in the dark over the idea that chain retailers would continue to open stores at the same rate they always had.  The whistling later achieved deafening proportions as the idea that the internet had not had any major impact on the high streets was laboured in this lengthy tome.  Given the opportunity,  I think it may have gone on to prove that black was white and that dogs could do basic arithmetic, but they probably needed to get the report out before reality overtook the theory.

Killer catalogues

The fact is the internet is having a pervasive effect on all aspects of the high street.  It’s been eating away like concrete cancer at the foundations of what we’ve all came to know and love as shop keepers, and we’re only now starting to see the cracks on the surface.

CataloguesIt’s effect was probably underestimated in the early years as we all continued to ride a wave of unbridled consumerism within traditional channels.  The idea that the internet could take over from ‘real’ shops was treated with the same disdain as the unfulfilled predictions from the 60s and 70s that catalogue shopping would prove an overall category killer.

But what wasn’t factored into these assessments was the ease by which technology would  pervade all aspects of our lives.  Even that wouldn’t have been enough on it’s own, but what really started to incubate the disease was what was happening to the real world property model and just how quickly that was going push things beyond the tipping point.

In previous retail revolutions there had been no viable alternative to shops.  Now there was.  As consumers embraced online, more retailers, new and old, saw it as an opportunity.  This in turn facilitated more choice and more ease of use for consumers which in turn encouraged more people online.  It became self fuelling.

Meanwhile at the other end of the fulcrum, property costs were starting to look like a burden you didn’t need to be carrying.  If all these pure-play retailers were making a killing online, what was the point in paying eye-watering rent and rates?  In fact as these costs continued to go up, the internet was forcing margins to become slimmer with the retailer squeezed in the middle.   Something that the catalogue revolution didn’t have going for it back in the days of brothel creepers and Beatlemania was the effect that these unrealistic property values would have on the whole DNA of retail.

Property Bonanza

The plain fact is that the costs of running shops is now too high.   Business rates are the current hobby horse, being as we’re coming up to the time of the year when the chancellor traditionally tells retailers to sod off when they ask him to consider a rates reduction or freeze in his next budget.   This year his two fingered salute will be amid our pleading on a collective bended knee for him to take his foot off our neck and maybe, just maybe, take a look at the real world from behind that rictus grin that he seems to be afflicted with at most public engagements.

But rents are the root cause of these problems, responsible in the first place for the level of rates we pay due to their effect on property valuations.  The cost of stores has been ratcheting up over the past 20 years like some sort of medieval torture device.  Landlords and property developers knew a good thing when they saw it and they capitalised on the rush to the high street.  Not really something any of us could really blame them for doing, bearing in mind that all us business folk are money grabbing, capitalist toe-rags at heart.

And I don’t really blame them, well not entirely anyway.  They wouldn’t have got away with it if there hadn’t been a veritable swarm of  eager fresh faced retailers, thrusting fistfulls of easy-come cash into the air, desperate to stake out another corner of a foreign concept shopping mall that will forever be Clinton Cards or Blacks or LaSenza or Jessops et al, without a thought for how long the retail bubble could last.  Of course we all now know how long it lasted for them, and it was quite a bit less than forever.

For sale signsIn turn these snow-blinded captains of industry were having their pockets lined by investors, venture capitalists and banks who were convinced they’d discovered the secret to alchemy.  In league with eagerly complicit surveyors they could make any deal, no matter how stupid, look good on a paper.  Right before they’d make a toy aeroplane out of it to carry them all off to bonus heaven.  Based on this sort of economic fairy story, valuers pretty much doubled the number they first thought of and used that as the basis of equity to debt deals that would have made even the most brazen ponzi scheme look like a charitable foundation for orphaned kittens.

Now with shopping centres and retailers being funded by roughly the same financial institutions, we’re all hurtling down the mountain side together waiting for either a tree branch to slap us in the face or the sheer drop to open up beneath us.   I say all, not because everyone has bought into the madness, I know many haven’t, but because we will all feel the impact when those that have hit the rocks below.

The only way is up

Despite claims to the contrary, landlords are still locked into forcing up rents at every opportunity.  Often with huge debts to service, they have no choice but to look on the current situation as a temporary blip.  They spin the crisis while convincing themselves and the markets that ideas like pop-up stores are a great new innovation, even though when they were simply called temporary lets they were regarded as far less desirable.  Self delusion has become an artform.  Accepting the new reality is just too terrifying for them and their financial backers to contemplate.  Whilst government is apparently still convinced that they can continue to enthusiastically milk the retail cash cow, even if it does have BSE and an advanced case of mastitis

All the while customers are becoming ever more savvy at negotiating the new retail seascape, and in the most part they’re looking for the shallow waters.  Price is king on the internet, quality too, but price usually trumps quality if you chuck in a nice over-used euphemism like ‘Value’ wherever possible.  And we all know how well ‘Value’ beefburgers have worked out recently don’t we?

These customers don’t care if your shop is going under, why should they?  They care about where they can get the best deal, and now more than ever that’s on the internet.  Why?  Because those traditional retailers stuck on the high street are locked into a death struggle with recalcitrant landlords and ignorant politicians and can’t afford to match the razor thin margins of pure-play online retailers.

Where will it all end?  That’s something I hope to be around long enough to find out.  There are some perhaps positive glimmers on the horizon, but right now it’s not possible to know if that’s the new day breaking or the sun exploding on the other side of the world.

Will we need sun cream or a nuclear bunker?  Stick around, I think I can hear the dawn chorus.

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