As we build up to the new financial year starting in April when businesses in England and Wales will start paying rates based on the latest revaluation, there’s been a lot in the papers about business rates. While a lot of the media coverage talks about the pounds and pence increases, the underlying issue remains that two years ago, the government committed to undertaking a fundamental review of business rates and we’re yet to see a clear conclusion to it.
The most important principle that’s been left unaddressed is the way the current system penalises investment, so if you improve your store, your premises is deemed to have increased in value, and your rateable value and rates bill will go up accordingly. Surely one of the ways a tax system should work is to encourage investment, and while we’re very proud that the convenience sector has invested over £800m in the past year (led in many cases by significant investment in forecourts), many of those businesses who are backing themselves and fuelling the economy in the communities where they trade will find they pay more tax as a result.
The other big missed opportunity from the review of business rates was the chance to look at the various sector-specific schemes that are applied where the rental values of premises in some sectors do not match the economic value of those businesses. This means forecourts and ATMs are rated differently to a typical convenience store on a high street or parade. Our conversations with forecourt retailers suggest that they do not believe the system works well, as it’s convenience stores trading on forecourts that are seeing most of the biggest increases. The government should have looked at these and considered which of them are still relevant.
The lingering problems with the business rates system are made worse by the government’s proposals to reduce the number of appeals against business rate valuations. I have some sympathy with the government’s desire to cut down on the appeals that clog up the system, and have created an industry of speculative appeals initiated by (a minority of) agents seeking fees. But we also can’t expect businesses to take excessive rates bills on the chin. It’s not acceptable to deny businesses the right to challenge what may be unfair rating assessments.