One of the biggest surprise announcements from today’s Autumn Statement – aside from the Chancellor’s spectacular U-turn on tax credits – was the decision to hand local councils full control of business rates. But it was a welcome one, too: devolving rates should deter excessive spending and stimulate competition between councils, while encouraging local government to be more responsive to business needs. When the Chancellor first mentioned devolution during his Conference speech in October, over 60 per cent of IoD members came out in favour of the policy. The devil is in the detail of course, but at face value it’s hard to see a downside to the policy. Some have pointed to the potential for geographic disparities, but those rural communities likely to have the smallest rates receipts are predominantly run by fiscally responsible Tory councils.
Others suggest that local mayors will succumb to the temptation to hike rates (currently, the uniform business rate is set at 49.3 per cent of a non-domestic property’s free-market rental in England and 48.2 per cent in Wales) to raise revenues without the consent of the local landowners. The assumption – or hope – is that accountability to their local electorate will help them resist.
But while business rates have long been criticised by businesses (and any cut welcomed), it is important to note that it’s not occupiers that end up shouldering the financial burden but landowners. So the notion than business rates cuts, as a result of devolution, could bring business into an area is a misconception: business rates cuts lead to rent rises in almost exact proportion.
And business leaders will need to be better engaged with local government to ensure councils are fiscally responsible. For example, city-wide mayors will be given the power to levy a business rates premium for local infrastructure projects, and as such businesses will need to make sure their views are properly voiced through their Local Enterprise Partnership.
From now on, it looks like businesses are going to get the local government they deserve.