As part of my work to support local businesses, I’ve spent a while looking at practical ways that the Council can help pubs, community assets, and businesses more generally make ends meet. One factor that keeps being raised is Business Rates.
Since the Localism Act 2011, local councils have had the ability to give discretionary relief to reduce the Business Rates bills of businesses. This is not readily apparent, as the legislation it amended has not yet been consolidated, but it changes things dramatically.
The Localism Act 2011, s69 significantly expanded the previous powers, which allowed rates relief in only limited circumstances. The new law conferred a general power of relief: allowing councils to give relief to any business.
And because more than half of rates go to central or London government, Camden bears less than half the cost of offering relief, despite local businesses getting 100% of the benefit. This makes it a very cost-effective way for a local authority to put money back into the community if targeted at the right places.
Having discovered this wide-ranging power, I dug up the numbers to see who used it the most. The figures for this new power are not published, but across all kinds of relief, Camden grants £165,000 of discretionary rates relief a year: a tiny fraction of the £960,000 granted each year by Islington or £900,000 by Barnet. Indeed, as a share of total Rates paid, it’s one-eighth the national average.
I asked an officer at a recent committee meeting what explained this huge gap. The officer couldn’t answer – although I would have been indescribably impressed if he could have, given it was sprung on him. Something to examine in more details, methinks!
I have written previously about how it would make sense to grant relief to Assets of Community Value (ACVs), whose freeholders are currently financially hurt when their premises become beloved by the community and gain ACV status.
The sole legal requirement to offer rates relief, and it should be a moral and political requirement as well, is that relief only be granted when it is fair to Council Tax payers. I believe it would be fair to reduce business rates for ACVs to reward behaviour that benefits the community, so I believe it passes this test.
Camden is one of the stingiest councils in the country when it comes to Discretionary Rates Relief. No Conservative wants the power used willy-nilly – not only would that be potentially unlawful, but also a risk to a level playing field.
But where businesses need our support, have proven themselves to be of value to residents beyond just their commercial proposition, and have seen their freehold value fall when granted ACV status, it is right that is reflected in the Rates they pay.
For more about my campaign to support local businesses, click here.