Can SMEs afford to wait any longer for a business rates review?

business rates review is urgent for businessesRetailers have been calling for months for a business rates review as the decimation of the UK’s High Street continues.

In early August more than 50 leading retailers wrote to the Chancellor urging him to change tax rules to boost the UK High Street and the business law firm RPC has reported that there has been a 65% increase in the number of businesses challenging their rates bill in the last quarter, with 4,000 challenges made in the first quarter of 2019, up from 2,430 challenges in Q4 2018.

RPC explains that the increase in challenges shows broadening dissatisfaction with business rates. Jeremy Drew, Co-Head of Retail at RPC, explains that the property tax is so complex that each new ratings review sees thousands of challenges lodged by businesses.

The retailers’ call was reinforced later in the month by the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), whose chief economist Rain Newton Smith said reform would be an enormous help to companies facing uncertainty and rising costs.

So, it is not only retail businesses that are struggling as new figures from an investigation by the real estate adviser Altus Group revealed earlier this week.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, it asked all the councils in England to provide details of how many business premises had been referred to Bailiffs.

It found that during the financial year 2018/19 councils appointed Bailiffs to visit 78,000 non-domestic properties including shops, restaurants, pubs and factories to collect overdue business rates.

What are the chances of a business rates review in the near future?

There are worries that in the light of politicians’ and Government’s ongoing tunnel-vision focus on Brexit urgent domestic concerns are being forgotten.

A total of 10 trade bodies have written to the Treasury Select Committee to express concern that the recent ministerial reshuffle has risked delaying urgent business rates reform.

Robert Hayton, head of UK business rates at Altus, said: “It’s not the mechanics of the rating system that is of primary concern to business but the level of the actual rates bills.”

“Commercial property is already making a significant contribution to overall UK tax revenues…with the highest property taxes across the EU…”

And John Webber, Head of Business Rates at commercial real estate advisers Colliers International, has said that a Government promise to carry out business rates reviews every three years, rather than every five, “ will merely scrape the surface of a current business rates system that needs much more drastic reform”.

This includes a revamped appeals system, which has been made so complicated that at first SMEs were deterred from using it. Also, a lack of staff at the VOA (Valuations Office Appeals), Colliers argues, has created an enormous backlog of appeals being settled.

The Times recently reported that the number of outstanding appeals has risen six-fold.

It is clear that if the UK economy, which relies heavily on SMEs, is to survive and thrive once Brexit is finally settled (if it ever is) the conditions in which they operate will have to be vastly improved, and quickly, if they are to be able to manage their cash flows, create sustainable business plans and grow in the future.

Perhaps the most urgent element of this is a business rates review given that the present system is far from fit for purpose.

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