As much as political reshuffles are hyped in the media as hugely important, most people know it’s a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.
As much as political reshuffles are hyped in the media as hugely important, most people know it’s a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. And that’s very much the case with the new minister with responsibility for the high street, Brandon Lewis.
Brandon is certainly not the breath of fresh air some hoped for. A champion for small business and reformer of an outdated business rates system he most definitely isn’t. Like his fellow council baiter Eric Pickles, Brandon’s sole mission, it would appear, is to rubbish councils and blame them for the decline of the high street.
Normally, I’d have some sympathy with this viewpoint. Local authorities can and should do more to support their local high streets. I’m always urging my council to do more. But when you see ministers criticising councils for not cutting back on elderly care services to pay for business rate reductions then you know they’ve lost the argument straight away.
In the coming weeks ministers like Brandon are preparing to increase the business rates bill by another £840million of which £196million will be paid by bricks and mortar retail.
Then they’ll probably launch another assault on councils and tell them to kick the homeless out of hostels, close some libraries and scrap meals on wheels to cut business rates at a local level. The absurdity of their argument should be lost on no one.
If ministers want to claim to be on the side of business and our high streets then they should be seen to be acting on the anger around exorbitant, unfair business rates, then they need to get the Chancellor to stand up and immediately freeze rates, then announce an urgent review of a system that’s long lost touch with reality.
You cannot keep adding a few hundred million pounds here, half a billion pounds there on to the business rates bill and hope no one notices. And if they do, argue that councils have the power to reduce them, as long as they find the money from somewhere else.
By the end of this Parliament Brandon and his colleagues will have added £6.52billion on to the business rates bill. That is unsustainable. With some of the biggest cuts to councils still to come, there is simply no point in boasting of new powers that allow councils to discount business rates.
The fact that only 18 of 326 councils have used this power to cut business rates awarding reductions of £2.5million out of a total of £21.7billion collected in the last year tells its own story. So too does the fact that neither the Prime Minister’s or Brandon Lewis’ constituency have used this power to grant a singe penny of discretionary relief.
What we need to see are fewer attacks on councils and sneaky attempts to shift blame away from a hopeless tax policy onto town hall chiefs and more vision, encouragement and hope.
We need a vision from ministers on what our high streets should aspire to become, encouragement and support for independent retailers and hope in the form of fairer tax and real commitment to this agenda. At the moment, the Government is failing on every front.