Here are five reasons why the business rates system doesn’t work

Chancellor Philip Hammond, with his friends and allies from the prime minister's team. Image: Getty.

In recent weeks, the upcoming revaluation of business rates has risen to the top of the news agenda, prompted by opposition to the changes from some of the UK’s biggest employers’ groups; the debate led the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to take steps to soften the impact in his recent budget.

The impending revaluation is intended to ensure business rates are set at a level which reflects the rental value of the property they occupy. This has a significant bearing on how competitive a business environment cities can offer, and the revenue generated by the tax is crucial for funding local government.

The problem is, however, that the forthcoming revaluation comes two years later than planned and seven years after the last revaluation. This delay has worsened an already dysfunctional business rates system, which increasingly does not work for either businesses or local government, for the following reasons:

It’s volatile. The lengthy gap between revaluations creates major shocks to the business rates system for both local government as a revenue stream, and for firms as ratepayers.

As a result, businesses across the country are facing dramatic changes in their business rates bill – with many in London and the South East facing significant increase in rates.

It’s not responsive to economic conditions. The current five-year revaluation cycle means that over time businesses are often paying rates based on out of-date valuations.  This is the especially the case since the last revaluation, which occurred before the 2008 recession and came into force in 2010.

Since 2010, businesses in prosperous areas such as London have been paying less in rates than they should be, while companies in poorer places such as Burnley and Hull have been paying more – hence why London firms are now facing particularly large hikes in their rates. 

It’s complex and poorly understood. The long and technical process of valuation, the lack of correlation between the rates and businesses’ ability to pay, and the annual changes in the business rate multipliers, all combine to make the system opaque and hard for businesses to navigate. 

The appeals system creates financial uncertainty for local authorities. The large volume of appeals to the Valuation Office Agency (for example, to raise issues or changes in property valuation),  and the delays in solving cases, mean that many places might have to refund several years’ worth of rates to businesses, putting their budget at risk.

It can reward perverse behaviour. Because the tax is primarily based on growth in commercial floor-space within the revaluation period, the current system rewards space-hungry developments which are often out of town. This can be to the detriment of town and city centres, and the firms based in them. 


By the same logic, the system does not reward behaviour that supports business and public investment, and economic growth which does not increase net rateable floor space.

With the government now considering reforms of business rates ahead of the tax being devolved to local authorities in 2020, how can it make the system more effective and ensure it maximises the benefits from devolution? Three things stand out in particular.

Firstly, more frequent revaluations are needed on a yearly or bi-annual basis, to make the system more accurate and timely, reduce volatility, and to maintain the legitimacy of the tax. More frequent revolutions would also have the additional effect of reducing the significance of appeals. 

Secondly, the government should replace the fixed yield with a fixed rate. The current system requires that business rates should generate a fixed yield in revenue, irrespective of the state of the overall economy. This both amplifies the volatility in the system and creates distortions which benefits more economically vibrant places. 

Removing the cap on business rates and moving to a fixed rate system would make it more responsive to the wider economy and the ability of firms to pay.

Finally, extend the period of time between resets of the system. Revenue from business rates is used to fund local government, and the amount of baseline funding places receive is reset every five years to ensure that it broadly reflects their level of need. This creates uncertainty for local authorities towards the end of this period, as they don’t know how much business rate income they will retain after resetting. It also gives places only a small time-period in which to accumulate growth, and therefore less incentive to make this a priority.

Carrying out the reset every 10 years instead wouldn’t prevent similar issues arising at the end that period – but it would provide authorities with more long-term certainty and greater incentive to grow their economy.

Making these changes will be critical in creating a business rates system that works for both local government and businesses, makes the most of devolution and offers the stability places need to drive local economic growth.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the Centre for Cities. This is an edited version of an article first posted on the think tank's blog

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.