'Cut crippling business rates' call

Mary PortasCuts to "crippling" business rates must be made immediately to reverse the risk of 20,000 stores closing over the next 12 months, according to a review of the high street.

The review by former Iceland and Wickes chief executive Bill Grimsey calls for an immediate reintroduction of the 2015 business rates revaluation to realign property values so thousands of small businesses "have a fighting chance of survival".

Mr Grimsey said: "During our review we've discovered that thousands of small businesses are at risk of failure and over 50% of local authorities who responded to a freedom of information request had no town centre plan of any description.

"Business rates came up all the time and when you meet small traders who are paying more than double their rent in business rates, then you realise this is an unfair tax that is completely out of touch with property values."

He added: "Young entrepreneurs are more likely to set up an online business than a bricks and mortar one on a high street because the overheads are too prohibitive.

"We cannot rely on major chains to keep the high street alive. They are consolidating their store portfolios and shifting their attention to online and out-of-town retailing. We need new ventures to fill the gaps and the tax system has to support this transition."

Mr Grimsey's review makes 31 recommendations to Government in an "alternative" review to that by retail guru Mary Portas.

He calls for a high streets minister to be appointed and sets out plans for town centre commissions to bring together leisure, stores, health centres, education and housing.

Recommendations already reported include a one-off tax to be imposed on major retail chains and leisure groups to fund regeneration of the high street.

Mr Grimsey's self-funded report - due to be presented at a House of Commons reception today - says town centres should offer two hours of free parking and freeze car parking charges for at least 12 months.

It claims that the high street of the future will have far fewer shops, while technology will completely redesign the way consumers see and use their local shopping area.

The report concludes: "Many high streets up and down the country are dying. They need to embrace radical change if they're going to have a future.

"The change we need to see must be driven by local communities, but supported by central government. This means ministers have to make business rates a fairer tax that doesn't disproportionately burden smaller businesses."

The Portas review was published 18 months ago and included recommendations such as setting up 27 "Portas Pilots" that shared £2.3 million of funding.

A £10 million High Street Innovation Fund was also set up to help councils with the highest incidence of empty properties and those most affected by the 2011 riots.

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said they had taken a range of measures to help the high street, including loosening planning restrictions to encourage housing and cutting rates for small businesses.

He added: "Small firms and shops are at the heart of our high streets and local communities, and we are supporting them to help the economy grow.

"Figures show that the level of small business rate relief has trebled since the general election, because of government initiatives."