Thursday, 19 October 2017

We won’t pay extra tax to improve town centre, say traders

ANGER is growing at plans to increase taxes on businesses in Henley.

ANGER is growing at plans to increase taxes on businesses in Henley.

They could have to pay an additional levy on top of their rent and rates to help fund town improvements.

Town centre manager Peter McConnell says creating a “business improvement district” in the town will boost trade.

It will mean businesses paying an additional one to four per cent of their business rate liability to pay for services such as rubbish collection, street cleaning and Christmas light displays.

The cost of living in Henley is already similar to or higher than many parts of London and many traders say that the fees they are paying are already too high.

Henley Villa, one of Henley’s oldest shops, closed in September after 40 years in the town with increasing overhead costs partly to blame.

Mr McConnell told last Tuesday’s town and community committee that although nothing has been decided he was keen to introduce the scheme which has already been adopted by more than 100 towns in the country.

He said: “A business improvement district is can take up to two years to come to fruition. But it is a viable, long-term solution that creates a funding base to execute a five-year improvement and investment plan, owned by local businesses, no matter who is in political power.

“It would need as much work as the neighbourhood plan, so a lot of work and quite a bit of money to get to the point where we are creating a completed support fund with hundreds of thousands of pounds in it.”

He added: “This is a topic that needs a lot of discussion and this is not the place to do it. It’s worth having a much longer debate and I can see the benefits of it.”

Mr McConnell says he doesn’t think the council currently has the resources to support the scheme but suggested putting together a “town team” to explore the possibility.

The scheme was though up by the Conservative government in 1997, but was not introduced until 2003 through Labour under the Local Government Act.

Businesses “buy into” the scheme through the levy and come up with suggestions on how the money is spent. The whole fund is ring-fenced to be spent only in the district.

Other towns have used their fund for shop-front displays or even crime prevention.

Any scheme must be approved through a referendum of ratepayers in Henley and some traders say they are unhappy at the prospect of further costs on their businesses.

Gillian Nahum, 56, who owns Henley Sales and Charter in Friday Street and Boatique clothing store in Hart Street, says businesses are taxed too highly already.

She said: “We already pay our business rates and that’s what they should be for. Right now businesses are very highly taxed anyway and I think this is not the way forward.

“I can see why they might propose it but I don’t really think it is radical enough. I don’t want to pay any more so I won’t be up for it.”

Annette March, 24, who owns White Garden florists in Hart Street, said: “I think we pay enough in business rates as it is and it shouldn’t have to be a matter of paying more money to get these benefits.

“I think we should have some sort of say in how business rates are spent anyway, but it would be nice to know where they are going.

“I can’t afford to pay into something like this, even if it is only one per cent, so I won’t be interested.”

Town councillor Joan Bland, owner of Asquith toy shop in New Street, said: “I’m not sure about this. The business rates are an unfair tax and to pay any more on top is wrong.

“I’m all for the business community to get together in things like the Henley Partnership and improve the town. We have had lots of trade associations in Henley which haven’t worked, but the Partnership seems to be working and we don’t need another one.

“It’s an extra cost and we don’t need it.”

Town councillor Lorraine Hillier, owner of Hot Gossip cafe in Friday Street, said: “I’d be against it. A lot of these ideas don’t actually boost trade at all.

“Businesses budget for themselves anyway and it would be far better, if we aren’t getting a reduction in business rates, to look at community grants that will make money available for traders without them having to pay anything in.

“It’s another tax and it’s unaffordable at the moment. I wouldn’t like to see it.”

Kay Hickmott, who owns the Flower Shop in Bell Street, said: “I would have though there’s enough funding already without asking us to contribute yet again.

“We pay a lot in business rates and surely that provides enough funding for these kind of things as it is.

“There’s lots of businesses on Bell Street but we don’t seem to be included in town centre activities. Perhaps they should look at including us more instead of this scheme.”

Henley Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said the scheme is worth looking at but was wary about imposing another tax on businesses in the town.

He said: “Business rates are just a tax which goes to central government. If we create a business district, that money will go into a pot to improve Henley.

“However, if it means another tax on businesses then I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. Businesses in Henley are hard-pressed at the moment so that’s why we need to fully explore the options.”

Julie Perigo, chairwoman of the Henley Partnership, says she would support the scheme and thinks it could be beneficial to traders if done right.

She said: “I think in principle it would be a terrific idea. It’s a way of supporting local businesses and getting them up and running.

“I don’t think the retailers will be delighted at the extra levy but they only make up under 20 per cent of the business economy in Henley. I think the more forward-looking businesses will think that for a little bit more money they have the opportunity to do big things.

“I would hope that if retailers found out more about it they would be in favour of it but we have to remember that retail is a small part of the Henley business community and lots of other businesses would say it’s a very good idea.”

In October, businesses met with Henley MP John Howell to ask to raise the small business rate relief from £18,000 to £25,500 to reduce the amount they pay.

Mr Howell says the scheme is “interesting” but says there would need to be a clear indication on what the money would be spent on before it could go ahead.

He said: “This is an interesting one to see if it will survive a referendum of those who pay business rates. It has to raise quite a bit of money but it’s got to have a clear idea of what it’s going to achieve.

“It’s a big issue as to whether businesses will want to pay rates as well as an additional levy. They may be willing to do so but we would need to look at what services are being offered. The details of the business improvement district must be set out very clearly.”

A business improvement district has been in operation in Reading since 2009 and traders will vote in February whether to keep the scheme for another five years.

Bobby Lonergan, from Reading UK CIC, a company which aims to boost the economy in Reading, is managing the town’s business district. He feels it has been a success for traders in the town centre.

Mr Lonergan said: “We are in the process of reviewing everything we have done and putting in a proposal for the next five years.

“The feedback we have had so far from businesses has been very positive on the whole. The feeling is that the business improvement district has been a genuine positive for retailers in the town centre. It’s been a very simple and receivable programme.

“We have seen a drop in crime and had a number of initiatives including Christmas light provision. With the levy it’s all in black and white and they know what they are getting from their money. Business rates go straight to central government but these stay in the town.

“Generally speaking, traders are very positive about it and it gives them a point of contact to put their views forward to other stakeholders in the town such as the police or council.”

What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email letters@henleystandard.co.uk

Meanwhile, businesses in Henley are set to benefit from a cap on business rate increases.

In his Autumn statement last Thursday, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the planned increase in business rates next April will be cut from 3.2 per cent to two per cent.

Mr Osborne also said new businesses which rent out vacant shops will be given a 50 per cent discount on rates in their first 18 months.

The changes could save UK businesses up to £300m.

ends

TRADERS in Henley are opposing plans to introduce a business improvement district.

Businesses would have to pay an additional levy on top of their rent and rates to fund improvements in services such as rubbish collection, street cleaning and Christmas light displays.

Town centre manager Peter McConnell says this would boost trade.

Speaking at a meeting of Henley Town Council’s town and community committee, Mr McConnell said: “A business improvement district can take up to two years to come to fruition but is a viable, long-term solution that creates a funding base to execute a five-year improvement and investment plan, owned by local businesses no matter who is in political power.

“It would need as much work as the neighbourhood plan, so a lot of work and quite a bit of money to get to the point where we are creating a completed support fund with hundreds of thousands of pounds in it.

“I can see the benefits of it and it’s worth having a much longer debate.”

Mr McConnell suggested forming a “town team” to investigate the idea of a Henley BID. But shopkeepers say having to pay an extra four per cent on their business rates will be overburdening them when many are struggling to stay afloat.

Annette March, 24, who owns White Gdn florists in Hart Street, said: “We pay enough in business rates as it is and it shouldn’t have to be a matter of paying more money to get these benefits.

“I couldn’t afford to pay into something like this, even if it was only one per cent.”

Gillian Nahum, 56, who owns the Boatique clothes shop in Hart Street, said: “Businesses are very highly taxed anyway and this is not the way forward.

“We already pay our business rates and this is what they should be for. I don’t want to pay any more.”

Joan Bland, who owns Asquiths in New Street and is a town councillor, said: “Business rates are an unfair tax anyway and to pay any more is wrong.

“I’m all for the business community getting together to improve the town but we have the Henley Partnership, which seems to be working and we don’t need another one.”

Lorraine Hillier, who owns the Hot Gossip coffee house in Friday Street and is also a town councillor, said: “I’d be against this. A lot of these ideas don’t actually boost trade at all.

“Businesses budget for themselves anyway and it would be far better, if we aren’t to have a reduction in business rates, to look at community grants that would make money available to traders.”

Kay Hickmott, who owns the Flower Shop in Bell Street, said: “We pay a lot in business rates and surely that provides enough funding for these kinds of things as it is.”

Henley Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said the scheme was worth looking at.

He said: “Business rates are a tax which just goes to central government. If we create a business district, that money would go into a pot to improve Henley. However, if it means another tax on businesses then I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Businesses in Henley are hard-pressed at the moment so we need to fully explore the options.”

Julie Perigo, who chairs the Henley Partnership, said: “In principle, it’s a terrific idea. It’s a way of supporting local businesses.

“I don’t think retailers would be delighted at the extra levy but they make up less than 20 per cent of the business economy in Henley.

“I think the more forward-looking businesses will think that for a little bit more money they would have the opportunity to do big things.”

Reading has had a business improvement district since 2009 and traders will vote in February whether to keep it for another five years.

Bobby Lonergan, of Reading UK CIC, which manages the scheme, said: “The feedback we have had from businesses so far has been very positive on the whole. The feeling is that it has been a genuine positive for retailers in the town centre.

“We have seen a drop in crime and had a number of initiatives including Christmas light provision.”

Last week, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the planned increase in business rates next April will be two per cent instead of 3.2 per cent and that new businesses which rent out vacant shops will be given a 50 per cent discount on rates in their first 18 months.

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