They say you can’t polish a turd. Well, the government has given it a damn good go with its business rates review. And every time another story emerges of a small high street shop being unfairly clobbered, there’s a right stink over Amazon, and the pathetic sums it pays (relatively speaking) on its giant DCs.
But the fault here lies not with business rates. A tax based on land values will never entirely ‘level the playing field’ and address the deep structural changes driving retail. No. The real iniquity is that Amazon (Google etc) aren’t paying enough corporation tax, a situation compounded by the government lowering the rate, placing an ever greater reliance on business rates to deliver revenue, and skewing competition further.
There are some immediate steps the Chancellor could take to address this. He could: bring forward (from 2020) the proposal to link the multiplier to CPI instead of RPI; repeat the 12.5% cap on rates increases that followed the 2010 revaluation (instead of the 42% cap many now face); make more new money available to help retailers whose revaluations bring them out of Small Business Rates Relief; and find a better way to deal with speculative appeals (the ‘reasonable professional judgement’ argument is just a cop-out).
That’s just for this Budget. In the longer term he needs to: start with a blank sheet; review business taxation in the round to reflect the changing nature of our economy and the way people shop; consider a Land Value Tax not based on rents (which penalise retailers for making investments in their businesses); introduce more regular revaluations that better reflect the prevailing market and reduce the sudden impact of rates changes; put an upwards cap on the multiplier; and, most of all, find a way to bring fairness back to the system and level the playing field between online and bricks & mortar. If petrol forecourts, cash machines and other business properties have their own, why not one for online retailers? Or how about a tax on all revenues that are generated in the UK only to be diverted, untaxed, to offshore accounts?