CBI issues joint statement calling for action on business rate reform

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Ahead of COP26, employers representing around 261,000 businesses and nine million employees say business rate reform essential for green investment.

The CBI, along with 41 trade associations, have issued a joint statement outlining how action by the Chancellor at the Budget to reform the current business rates system could unleash a wave of business investment across key government priorities, including net zero and levelling up.

The CBI says that, in England, the current business rate regime acts as a “drag” on the government’s goal of a high wage, high productivity and high investment economy.

The organisation says that with up to 50% of business investment potentially subject to business rates, the current system “actively disincentivises” business investment in decarbonisation and wider investments.

The joint statement from businesses is backed by 41 trade associations including British Retail Consortium, UK Hospitality and SMMT, representing around 261,000 businesses and nine million employees.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said: “Action to get investment flowing into and around the UK is sorely needed to reinforce our recovery. The Government deserves credit for convening the supply chain advisory group to unblock temporary challenges, but as we’re seeing with energy prices, there is no substitute for longer-term planning and investment.

“The Chancellor has an opportunity to fix this, starting with fundamental business rates reform at the Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review. By setting out an approach which attracts investment, he can equip the UK with the tools it needs to secure the high wage, high productivity and high skill economy of the future.

“With up to half of business investment potentially subject to business rates, it has literally become a tax on investment. Action to stimulate investment, starting with business rates reform, unites firms spanning the whole economy. If the government is serious about achieving its net zero ambitions, kicking reforms further into the long grass cannot be the answer.”

The joint statement reads:

“Government and business are united in a mission to Build Back Better and Greener from the global pandemic. If we as a country are to truly level up and meet our net zero commitments, leading by example in the year we host COP26, then unleashing a wave of business investment should be the focus. Up to 50% of business investment is potentially subject to business rates[1], so the financial burden on firms is high and the 2023 revaluation could see it increasing further. Therefore, with the current business rates system acting as a tax on investment, action is needed to rebuild the UK’s international competitiveness.

“The Government has confirmed that policy announcements as part of the long-awaited reform of the business rates system will now be made this autumn. Firms need to see fundamental reform of the system to address long-standing barriers to investment. The Government has backed business throughout the pandemic with short-term reliefs, but as businesses begin to rebuild, they need the confidence to invest.

“However, the current system hasn’t kept pace with the challenges and opportunities we face as a country. No business begrudges paying into the tax system, and the pandemic has shown how important and valued our public services are. But in their current form, our business rates system is uncompetitive, unproductive and unfair.

“Uncompetitive, when compared to international rivals. UK property tax levels are four times higher than Germany’s, and 50% higher than the G7 average, as a proportion of GDP

“Unproductive, in that they directly put firms off from investing to make their business more energy efficient or competitive. If a business invests in solar panels, or other plant & machinery to improve their property, this increases their rates bill. As these investments take several years to yield a return, the immediate increase in rates often makes the investments unviable.

“And unfair, when the current system helps ingrain considerable inequalities between the richest and poorest areas of the country, penalising businesses in areas of slower growth.

“Reform to address these inefficiencies can be acted on through this Autumn’s policy decisions. We as business organisations representing xxx employers, want to see government act now to:

– Reduce the overall burden of the business rates system to unlock business investment in net zero and support levelling-up. Allow business rates liabilities to fall in line with property values, and without further increases in the headline rate, equivalent to a reduction in the uniform business rate for these businesses. Ensure firms can instantly benefit from any fall in property values following a revaluation, while maintaining a phased transition to a higher bill where property values increase.

– Increase the frequency of business rates revaluations and ensure rates adjust quickly to economic changes to ensure business rates reflect firms’ ability to pay.

– Create a ‘greener’ business rates system to support the government’s net zero ambition, unlocking investment to make buildings more energy efficient and decarbonising property stock, starting with exempting green Plant & Machinery and new technologies that directly link to the ‘green’ agenda, including solar PV and heat pumps, from business rates.

Responding to the joint statement from the CBI and dozens of trade organisations calling for urgent and meaningful business rates reform, Jerry Schurder, business rates policy lead at property consultant Gerald Eve, said:

“Whilst the Prime Minister is clear that there is no room presently for tax cuts, complaints about the unfair business rates system have been growing in advance of the Autumn Budget, culminating in this cacophony from across business and industry. Their message is that the Government must not break its election pledge to reform and reduce this reviled tax.

“Their key proposal is innovative but logical. Rather than cut business rates across all sectors, the proposal is that the tax rate, i.e. the Uniform Business Rate, should be fixed, with rates payable adjusting directly in line with changes in property values. This would deliver cuts in the bills for high street shops, with increases in liabilities for big box sheds whose property values have continued to increase through the pandemic.

“Exempting improvements that make properties more sustainable should be a no-brainer: with the green agenda a growing priority, it is ludicrous that those playing their part and contributing towards net-zero are currently penalised through higher rates bills.

“These proposals fall short of the initial asks of many of these trade organisations who were seeking a significant cut across the board, but this widely supported position statement is a pragmatic response to the challenging state of the country’s public finances. It would also align perfectly with the levelling-up agenda as rates bills would reflect current property values which are generally lower in ‘red wall’ constituencies.”

Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Sky high business rates are closing stores up and down the country and preventing new ones from opening. A recent BRC survey found that four-in-five retailers will be forced to close shops unless the rates burden falls following the Government’s upcoming Fundamental Review. Without change, the areas most in need of levelling will be hit hardest, and the Government’s levelling up agenda will fail. The choice is clear – cut rates and boost investment and jobs, or leave them unchanged and see more shops closed and jobs lost.”