Retail concern

Town centre report ‘ignores key business rate issue’

Hamilton town centre
Hamilton was one of the towns visited by the committee (pic: Terry Murden)

A new report aiming to breathe life back into crumbling town centres has already sparked concern that it fails to tackle a basic problem with business rates and re-heats a discredited plan to hike costs for retail parks.

MSPs on the Economy and Fair Work Committee today said every town should get its own plan rather than a top-down set of policies imposed on them.

It demands that ownership of buildings is transparent and that more powers are introduced to ensure repairs are tackled.

The committee wants planning to be strengthened so that developments do not have a damaging effect on town centres.

It calls for a review of the business rates system which “acts as a disincentive to invest in already occupied property, as any investment leads to an increase in NDR [non-domestic rates]”.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said that with one-in-seven shops lying empty, there is a “pressing need” to support town centres, and he noted that the report ‘seems to recognise that high business rates dis-incentivise commercial investment and hold back regeneration.”

But he added: “It bizarrely says nothing about the need to reduce the business rate which is now at a 23-year high.

“Instead, the report reheats the previously ditched idea of an extra rates levy on all out-of-town commercial premises.

“This would do little to aid town centres, but would certainly add complexity, cost and unpredictability into the rates system and undermine commercial investment.”

Claire Baker, convener of the Economy and Fair Work Committee said: “This report should signal a line in the sand for how we support, develop and prioritise investment in our town centres. We all know a town centre that has empty shops, a lack of investment and few thriving businesses.

“This report signals that change is needed. We know there is no quick fix but unless we start now, then we won’t be able to halt the accelerated decline of recent years we’ve seen already in too many communities across Scotland.”

Committee members visited a number of town centres, including Burntisland, Inverurie, Fraserburgh, Hamilton and Dumfries.

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