One way to narrow the North-South divide

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We all know there's a North-South divide, but from a policymakers perspective it’s not clear what – if anything – we should be doing about it. To a significant degree, the relative economic success of London and the South East is due to factors beyond the powers of politicians to rebalance (without simply dragging the country’s capital down). The decline of manufacturing, the rise of London and Cambridge as tech hubs, and the cultural pull of the metropolis cannot be overturned – no matter how much money the government throws at it.

But even though we can't turn the country upside-down, given that most of us would prefer wealth and opportunity to be a little more evenly distributed, we should try to identify instances where we are prejudicing the South at the expense of the North. Here, one thing stands out above all others: the decision to postpone the revaluation of business rates.

As Simon Danczuk MP wrote a few years ago in the Guardian: "The problem is in my constituency – and no doubt many others – some commercial property values have fallen by up to 40 per cent since 2008." For Danczuk’s Rochdale constituency, the FT reported that “a study by Liverpool university showed that if business rates were set using up-to-date property values, shops in Rochdale would experience a 65 per cent fall in rates bills." In contrast, London shops would see a 52 per cent increase.

These costs weigh heavily on the North. Of the top 10 town centres with the greatest percentage of empty shops, seven are in the North East or North West. The Daily Mail reported last year that the North West is suffering from 16.9 per cent empty shop space, versus London’s 7.9 per cent. In Hartlepool, County Durham, 27.3 per cent of stores in the town are up for rent.

Demanding regular revaluations shouldn’t be confused with a call to cut business rates. As has been argued forcefully on this blog, business rates are about the least worst form of taxation: "Repeated taxes on property, that is business rates, have the lowest deadweight costs of any form of tax. The only one that could be better is a proper land value tax." Nevertheless, landlords and the entrepreneurs that want to use the abandoned spaces deserve rates that reflect the value of the land – the first step of a Northern regeneration should be a revaluation.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.