Sinead McLaughlin: Rebalancing the business rates burden

BACK SHOPPING? If we want get city and town centre retail thriving again, we need to rebalance the rates system, with a greater proportion of the burden felt by out-of-town shopping centres
Sinead McLaughlin

THE retail sector has been in crisis since the start of the pandemic. But, in truth, much of it was already in crisis. The traditional high street has struggled both from the impact of online retailing, but also from the out-of-town shopping centres.

It is essential that we urgently consider how to bring life back to our city and town centres, to rescue them. If we fail, the traditional high street will be gone forever.

We need to take an honest look at the problems retail is facing. Online retailers must be forced by governments to pay their fair share of business taxation. We also need to review the system of business rates and ask ourselves whether it is the best and fairest way of levying a tax on business. I am convinced it is not.

For a start, we need to provide financial incentives. If we want to revive city and town centre retail, then we need to rebalance rates so that these locations have lower rates burdens, with a greater proportion of the burden felt by out-of-town shopping centres.

We can go further than this by using the business rates system to promote the best outcomes. This might include incentives of reduced rates to bring vacant space above shops back into use as apartments. We need to do much more to stimulate more city centre living, which can not only reduce pressure on land elsewhere for new homes, but also create new vibrant communities in our city and town centres.

As well as building communities, more city centre living can provide additional demand for local retailers. This can protect the viability of city and town centre shops.

We can, and should, also reconsider the business rates treatment of empty buildings and vacant land. At present, empty business properties can have an initial three months rates-free period, followed by a 50 per cent discount. If we are serious about encouraging life in the city and town centres, we should consider not only scrapping that discount, but actually penalising building owners for having empty premises.

Let’s put an end to city and town centre buildings falling into disrepair: the use of business rates as an incentive can play an important role in this. The same principle could apply to vacant land that is an eyesore in our commercial centres.

Business rates reform is only part of the solution to the decline of the high street. We need to invigorate retail centres in other ways as well – not least by making them attractive leisure destinations. We need to do more to encourage new leisure facilities to be located in our town and city centres, rather than out-of-town.

Despite our weather, we will be doing more socialising outdoors in future. This must be supported through changes in our licensing regulations, but also traffic management systems. I’m pleased that this is happening, with the active involvement of infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon. The priority must be the people who use our city and town centres - not the cars that are being driven through them.

As individuals, we can play our own part by supporting the restaurants, cafes and theatres, as well as shops, in our town and city centres as they return from pandemic inactivity. We can vote with our pockets to support what we value.

We need the Department of Finance to act on business rates, and for councils to improve the look and feel of our traditional retail centres.

But we all need to act to support our retailers, especially the locally owned independent retailers. As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s think less about Amazon and more about the high street.

:: Sinead McLaughlin is SDLP economy spokesperson and MLA for Foyle

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