Retailers see rate bills slashed amid calls for urgent reforms

Retailers see rate bills slashed amid calls for urgent reforms
Calverley Road, Tunbridge Wells

The Government’s Business Rates Retail Relief scheme was introduced last year, and provided a third off bills, but the scheme is now being extended for another year, with the discount increased to 50 per cent.

The policy goes to the first full Council meeting of 2020 tonight [Wednesday] at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, and since the money for the rate relief will be reimbursed by central Government, Councillors are expected to approve the plans, which will see its introduction on April 1.

The relief will see rates cut for all struggling retailers whose business has a rateable value below £51,000, which could see savings of up to £12,500 a year.

The Retail Rate Relief scheme is set to benefit many types of business including shops, restaurants, cafés and drinking establishments. Financial services, estate agents and employment agencies will not qualify.

While the news has been welcomed, it has been described as a ‘sticking plaster’ amid calls for top to bottom reform of the current Business Rate system.

Darren Austin from Tunbridge Wells accountancy firm Synergee says the tax has hit some of his clients hard.

“I know some of my clients are finding rates absolutely crippling at the moment, especially publicans.

“The relief is just a sticking plaster, and I think the whole system does need looking at. The burden of the rates system is unfairly falling on those that are not getting much for their money. There needs to be a fairer way for councils to get their income from business.”

Earlier this month, the Times reported on the closure of the family-owned restaurant, Woods, in The Pantiles.

The restaurant, which had a rateable value of £39,000, had an annual Business Rates bill of around £20,000, and would have saved £10,000 if the discount had been introduced earlier.

Larger businesses have also been complaining about the current Business Rates system.

The boss of Beales department store, Tony Brown, blamed the ‘lunacy’ of the system for the demise of his company, which will see all 23 of his stores, including the Tonbridge branch in the Angel Centre, close in the coming weeks.

Other business leaders have made similar complaints about business rates, which they say could see more stores close [see page 6] unless major reforms are introduced.

The Government has promised a review of the Business Rate system, and many are hoping new Chancellor Rishi Sunak will make an announcement during next month’s budget on March 11.

Cllr Tom Dawlings, head of Finance and Governance at the Borough Council, has also called on central Government to reform the system.

He told the Times: “The Council has repeatedly requested the powers from central Government to be able to make decisions surrounding business rates locally to better support local businesses.

“It is disappointing that the eligibility criteria setting out which businesses will receive a discount has again been decided in Whitehall.

“We will now focus on trying to get the relief available to eligible businesses in time for the issuing of bills by April 2020.”

He continued: “It is estimated that the cost of awarding the reliefs will be £1.6 million across the borough, and providing the Council follows the scheme written by the Government then the Council will be reimbursed this cost.”

Pubs to benefit from further £1,000 cut

Struggling publicans and bar owners in the town have also been handed a further rates lifeline, with an additional £1,000 off their Business Rates.

The Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA] claim one pub in the UK closes every 12 hours. A number of local drinking establishments in Tunbridge Wells have closed recently, including the George and Dragon in Speldhurst.

Both relief schemes could see some pubs In Tunbridge Wells benefit from a £13,600 discount on their tax bill.

Cllr Tom Dawlings, explained: “There is a separate scheme which does not require Full Council approval to award pubs with a rateable value below £100,000 a cash discount of £1,000 off their business rates bills.”

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