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The Business Rates Debate

post-image 17th May 2017

There’s never a dull moment in South Bank, but this is certainly an exceptionally busy time on the political front – given the upcoming election, and a raft of recent policy announcements and consultations from both national government and the Greater London Authority.  Many of these will have a direct impact on South Bank and its business community, and – on your behalf – we are engaged on a number of levels, writes Nic Durston, CEO of South Bank of Employers Group.

Business rates continue to be an important issue.  Targeted lobbying from South Bank BID, South Bank Employers’ Group, Business Improvement Districts across London, and local government required the Chancellor to make a substantial response in his recent Budget.  This achieved that difficult political balancing act: doing enough to show you are listening, but not so much that it looks like you are backtracking.  His measures to mitigate the very large increases faced by very many central London businesses were pretty small-scale – support for some pubs, and a support fund of £300m to be spread across the London.  This means that Lambeth business will see about £3m of this support, and Southwark businesses are set to receive £4m.  These small sums have to cover the whole of the boroughs.

If well-targeted, this additional support can help some of the key business sectors in South Bank. One of the many strengths of our neighbourhood is that we have a successful and long-established group of cultural and arts institutions and businesses, who work alongside the main visitor attractions, tourism operators, the hotels, and the bars and restaurants to cater for an incredibly wide range of visitors, locals and employees.  And the success of the neighbourhood has attracted many new businesses and employers, including those operating in the tech and digital arena – growth sectors for London’s economy.  We know what the impact of business rate rises will be in South Bank – certain investments will be put on hold or cease altogether, fewer people will be employed locally, and some costs will inevitably rise – none of these are good for South Bank as a neighbourhood, a destination, and as a place of employment.

In this context, it is frustrating that this extra financial help – to be distributed by the local authorities – has been delayed by the General Election.  We know that Lambeth has received a number of expressions of interest in its “hardship fund” but it won’t be distributing it for several weeks.  We are still pressing for more information on how both authorities plan to use this funding to support businesses that need help. Other London boroughs have suggested criteria around “public interest”, the size of the rate increase, as well as the size of the businesses affected, which could all be taken into account in reaching decisions on who to support.

There are undoubtedly some businesses that would really value any additional support, to counter the impact of the recent rises in business rates.  Having undertaken the analysis, we know which sectors are going to be hit hard – cafes, restaurants, bars, and hotels.  These are all essential to South Bank’s vibrancy.

Notwithstanding the General Election, the government is progressing its plans to reform other aspects of the business rates system, which will result in local government (in London, this means a combination of the local boroughs and the Greater London Authority) retaining all, or most, of the business rates that are raised.  The Department of Communities and Local Government has recently consulted on proposed mechanisms to make this happen, and we – South Bank Employers’ Group and South Bank BID – have responded with our concerns around how businesses are not being given enough opportunity to influence these important changes.

We are making the case for the special circumstances of South Bank. As London’s Cultural Heart, South Bank makes an essential contribution to London’s vibrancy and business eco-system, but our area is under pressure given visitor numbers and development. We need to invest in our public realm and our people and keep South Bank special, and thriving.