Our high streets and creperies need backing - and business rates reform

Social distancing signs outside the William IV pub in Hampstead, whose creperie, along with La Creperie de Hampstead, was...

Social distancing signs outside the William IV pub in Hampstead, whose creperie, along with La Creperie de Hampstead, was ordered to close - Credit: André Langlois

Lockdown has played its part in challenging the survival of the high street but the decline started over 10 years ago. 

The unstoppable rise of the internet, unfairly high business rates on bricks and mortar shops compared with internet businesses, and high rents created the perfect storm before Covid-19.

The business rate scheme charges high street businesses approximately half the amount paid in rent. Internet firms typically do not have high street presences so pay a fraction of those rates. 

The government has persistently refused properly to upgrade the system. This has always been surprising to me given that business rates fund local councils like Camden Council and is their primary source of income. As internet businesses boomed, the amount the government could properly obtain in an equal business rate model would ensure local authorities were better funded than they are presently. 

Given that the amount councils collect impacts on our lives, from rubbish collections to running homes for the elderly, a fair business rate system is a matter of immense importance to each of us. 

Lockdown is shining a light on the archaic rates. Retail, hospitality and leisure businesses get a business rate break for the 2020-21 tax year but what happens when that is over?  Do we go back to the old system or will a more egalitarian system punch through the government malaise? 

This is a golden opportunity. With a high street revaluation just two years away, which is likely to see rateable values fall and the business rates take reduce, now is as good a time as any to remind the authorities to take action.

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Irrespective of business rate practices, footfall on a high street is critical to its success. Some businesses like Tesco and our creperies draw people on to the high street which may see spending in other shops. I was, therefore, shocked to learn of Camden Council’s hasty decision to close the creperies on public health grounds - a blow to our high street. 

A warning to change their system to reduce congestion around their premises would have done the trick rather than a draconian closure notice. Pictures in the letters page last week demonstrated that the queue for the oldest creperie, La Creperie de Hampstead, conformed to government guidelines. There must be a balance between the needs of public health and the needs of businesses. The actions of Camden Council do little to help our beleaguered high street. We need solutions which are more a velvet glove than a clunking iron fist.

Jessica Learmond-Criqui

Jessica Learmond-Criqui - Credit: Jessica Learmond-Criqui