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The Federation of Small Businesses (‘FSB’) have called for radical business rates reform to provide financial assistance for businesses impacted by Brexit uncertainty. With the high streets facing ‘retail apocalypse’, do you agree with the range of measures indicated in FSB’s recommendations to the Chancellor and what measures are necessary to help London’s small businesses and stop the decline in London’s High Streets?
Small businesses are the backbone of London’s economy. Our high streets are not only vital business hubs but central to the life of our communities. That is why the work that the Federation of Small Businesses has done and that we are doing at City Hall to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and revitalise our high streets is so important. Giving London more control over taxes like these would allow us to better support high streets as more people shop online and we face economic uncertainty due to Brexit. The taxes I refer to, of course, are the amount that London businesses are forecast to pay in business rates.
The new Government should seize the opportunity for a wholesale transfer of fiscal responsibilities recommended by the London Finance Commission, which was commissioned by [The Rt Hon] Boris Johnson [MP, Prime Minister], including the full devolution of business rates. The FSB’s campaign has highlighted a number of anomalies – for example, the rateable value threshold – and we agree with them in relation to the changes that need to be made. Our Draft London Plan and Economic Development Strategy tries to encourage boroughs to regenerate high streets. Additionally, we have a £26 million Good Growth Fund to assist in relation to high street and town centre improvements. I know that Assembly Member Shah is an advocate of the high street, not just small businesses.
Thank you, Mr Mayor. The Queen’s Speech refers to measures to help high streets with a £320 million cut in business rates. I am not sure how much of that will help London high streets and particularly small businesses. They also talk about a rates review. We will see what it is. I know, Mr Mayor, that you promoted devolution of business rates to London. The question is: except for what you are promoting in the London Plan, what other steps have you taken so far to halt the decline of high streets, which is a major concern in London and across the nation?
I think we need to be honest. Because of transformations in the way people shop through the internet and the way people do leisure activities, unless we support the high streets we will have ghost towns across our city. That is why we need to support our small businesses and support our shops on the high street.
We lobbied the Government in relation to changing the rules in relation to the retail relief scheme that it has, but also we are doing things to support the high street from the Good Growth Fund, from the London Plan and from having more leisure activities in town centres. You saw in Waltham Forest how small businesses have benefited from a combination of more cycleways and also the London Borough of Culture. We are doing lots of things to support small businesses but what we need is more power in relation to spending monies raised locally, locally. That is why devolution would make a big difference.
I have always supported economic growth and housing through Opportunity Areas as well as Intensification Areas. The question is: could it be that those very measures are hindering high streets? Is there a case to redefine what high streets are and the role they play in social cohesion and accessibility for elderly people, for example, or families who do not want to go out to supermarkets and so on?
That is really important. For a lot of older people, the only conversation they will have, often, in a day is the conversation with a shopkeeper. There are fewer post offices. Many older people will not go to the local pub. You have identified a really important benefit of a vibrant high street in relation to loneliness, dignity and community cohesion, and that is why you are right to ask the question, “Are the criteria we use good?”
We are looking into this in relation to the work we are doing. One of the reasons why we are supporting the high street is this very area. That is where culture is important. We supported a scheme in Lewisham where culture was used to help older people, to get them together to address the issue of loneliness. You are right to identify whether it may be a hindrance, the current Opportunity and Intensification Areas, or a help. We always review this regularly and we are looking at what we can do to address the very issue you have identified.
When we look at Opportunity Area projects and so on, perhaps we could be missing a trick out there in terms of getting some benefits from those large projects coming up which can sustain some of the high street regeneration that needs to happen. I am not sure if that is being done by planning authorities or how much the London Plan can help to achieve this.
We will do what we can, as I said in my answer, in the draft London Plan, the Good Growth Fund and other areas. There is work we are doing in the Economic Development Strategy. However, any more ideas – I know the Assembly Member has huge experience particularly in outer London high streets – I am more than happy to listen to.