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bira at the Houses of Parliament
By Bira

Parliamentary privilege

PARLIAMENTARIANS HAVE WELCOMED bira’s proposals for a simple and pragmatic business rates adjustment following a formal launch of the policy at the Houses of Parliament on 11 September.

The event was a significant staging post in bira’s long-running campaign to secure for independent retailers a “level playing field” on which to compete against larger competitors, especially online-only operators, which have much smaller rates bills on their huge warehouses than bricks-and-mortar traders do on shops.

MPs who attended the two-hour session in the Gothic splendour of Committee Room 10 of the Palace of Westminster expressed their willingness to promote the issue of business rates reform in Parliament.

Tory grandee Lord Naseby – previously the long-serving MP Michael Morris, a former Deputy Speaker of the Commons – promised to organise a cross-party alliance in the House of Lords to set down a sequence of questions on business rates, a device for keeping the subject in the forefront of legislators’ minds.

Alan Hawkins, who as bira CEO has steered the policy-making process for the past two years, commented: “It is a tribute to bira’s standing that we were able to launch our rates manifesto in Parliament. Today was a very significant moment in business rates reform and to have such an audience has been extremely encouraging. It shows that bira’s proposed solution to the unfair tax is gaining traction and that the government is looking for a fair and simple solution, which is what we can offer. There is still work to be done and we won’t give up until independent retail businesses are on a level playing field.”

Andrew Goodacre, who succeeded Alan as CEO at the beginning of October after a month-long handover, remarked: “I have been very impressed at the work bira has put in to this proposal, including a meeting at No 10 last August and continuing discussions with Treasury officials. It is a real step forward to have this level of engagement. I know from my own previous experience at other trade associations how difficult it is to secure their attention.”

The event on 11 September was the culmination of two years’ work that involved Mark Radford, bira’s long-standing business rates advisor, on the technical details, and Fiona Cuthbertson, bira’s policy affairs advisor, who has improved the association’s routes of communication with Whitehall and Parliament.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Conservative MP for The Cotswolds, who hosted the event on behalf of bira, said: “I was extremely impressed and encouraged by bira’s proposal. It offers a simple and practical method, which would bring instant relief to many thousands of hard-pressed retailers, who are the backbone of our country. This is an idea whose time is going to come.”

Watched by a number of bira members who serve on its legal and public affairs committee (LPAC), which steers the association’s political strategy, bira president Surinder Josan, owner of All Seasons DIY in Smethwick near Birmingham, told the audience: “Retail has evolved over the last decade. New businesses entering the field are pushing the way forward, bringing in new and exciting ways to reach customers. The business rates model, which was applicable decades ago, is simply no longer fit for purpose. It’s time to apply a new method of taxation to address the imbalances across the bricks and mortar and digital landscape. In reality bira’s proposals are the only way of achieving a speedy and practical solution to this problem, and maybe as soon as this year’s Budget.”

To illustrate how business rates demands can stifle the growth of independent businesses, Surinder related that he has been planning to relocate his business to new premises nearby that are four times as big as his current shop, but he is holding off from doing so partly because of the uncertainty about his rates bill in the future.

The effect of the most recent business rates review was highlighted by immediate past president Vin Vara, who said that across his 12-strong Tool Shop chain in central London he had had to close one shop and relocate two others to secondary sites in response to hikes in rates valuations.

Alan Hawkins added: “Bricks and mortar retailers are already at a disadvantage and being asked to compete on an unlevel playing field. Many retail businesses saw an increase in their rates bill last year, while the average bill for Amazon fell by 1.3%. Our proposal would redress some of the balance, as an allowance would automatically reduce the bill of those businesses that need the most help.”

Among the voices of support at the meeting, Warren Lomax from Max Publishing and the Greetings Cards Association, whose members’ products are sold almost exclusively in shops, described bira’s initiative as “a fantastic campaign”. Highlighting other problems on the high street, Mike Wood, Tory MP for Dudley South, reported that in his own constituency three banks had closed in the past two years, with a predictable impact on footfall that had seen two butchers close.

Alluding to the iniquity of online retailers having an unfair advantage over traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers, Damien Moore, Conservative MP for Southport, suggested that a 1% sales tax on online sales would benefit the Treasury’s coffers (and allow more room for manoeuvre on business rates).

From Northern Ireland, where a different rates system operates, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party MP for Lagan Valley, observed that many businesses in Ulster were going under because of the burden: “Reform of business rates is long overdue.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown confirmed that bira’s campaign is gaining support from MPs and contributing to the debate on permanent reform of the rates system.

Get behind bira’s campaign

Can you contact your local MP to urge him or her to support bira’s campaign for a simple amendment that would benefit thousands of bira members immediately? Let us know what response you receive via editorial@bira.co.uk

View bira Business Rates Manifesto (September 2018)
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