Reform of the business rates is needed to stop more shops and pubs closing in St Albans, small business owners told Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson on Saturday (7 December).
She was greeted in St Albans city centre by supporters before walking to George Street to take part in a roundtable discussion.
Jo’s arrival on her electric-powered general election battle bus coincided with figures released by the Liberal Democrats to mark Small Business Saturday, showing that 3,765 ventures closed across St Albans district between 2016 and 2018 – a 41% increase on the previous three year and the second highest in Hertfordshire1.
Business rates have risen 'astronomically'
The Lib Dem leader pulled a pint at Dylan’s Kings Arms in George Street and took part in the roundtable discussion, which included Dylan’s landlord Sean Hughes, president of St Albans Chamber of Commerce Alastair Woodgate, Galio jewellers owner Sarah Gillow and Helen Searle, co-owner of Cerimonia.
Sean Hughes, who is also chairman of Save St Albans Pubs, told her that high property prices in St Albans had pushed up business rates “astronomically”.
“It’s insane,” he said, “especially at this time when you have pubs going under or really struggling with their profit margins.”
Barrier to survival for some businesses
Alastair Woodgate spoke of the challenging time many St Albans businesses are undergoing.
“Business rates are a barrier to growth – and a barrier to survival for some,” he said. “There are a lot of other challenges facing business, but if we can get business rates sorted, they’ll be on a much better footing to make a success of things.”
And Sarah Gillow, of Galio jewellers, stressed the need to invest more in the city centre to create “an amazing street scene” and an attractive alternative to shopping online.
Replace rates with commercial landlords tax
Jo Swinson pointed out that replacing business rates with a tax on commercial landlords is part of the Lib Dem manifesto.
“The new tax would help save money,” she said, “and for the vast majority of businesses would be a fairer way of levying the property charge.”
Other measures Liberal Democrats would put in place to support small businesses and boost high streets include:
- Creating a new ‘start-up allowance’ to support those starting new businesses with their living costs in the crucial first weeks of the business
- Increasing mentoring support to small business owners
- Requiring government agencies and larger firms to sign up to a new, enforceable, prompt payment code to ensure that small businesses never again suffer because of large businesses failing to pay on time
- Expanding the Future High Streets Fund to support the redevelopment of more town centres and high streets, and
- Supporting the development of the skills small businesses need by reforming the apprenticeship levy to become a skills and training levy where 25% of being targeted at areas with the greatest skills needs.
Pictured: Jo Swinson with Sean Hughes, Alastair Woodgate and Sarah Gillow (Photo: Liz Needham)
1 The figures on businesses closing are taken from the ONS Business Demography 2018 (published 19 November 2019).