Once in a while we get the opportunity to tell MPs what we think. That is the opportunity we were afforded by the Business Select Committee on Tuesday. It is holding an inquiry into government support for the retail sector and asked the ACS to appear as an expert witness.
It’s a far-reaching subject that encompasses a number of complex issues. Our overriding message is that government action has been too slow, too safe and lacking in ambition.
The government has been taking the issues faced by the retail sector seriously since it came to power. Most high-profile was its appointment of Mary Portas to advise on how we save our high streets. Her report published at the end of 2011 had many critics. Some were critical from the outset, doubting her motivation and credentials for the job. Many more since have been critical of the Portas Pilot initiatives that received government funding.
The ACS doesn’t share these concerns. It is easy to criticise the Portas Pilots, but what do people expect them to achieve in a few weeks faced with long-term problems? Instead of the government’s lack of ambition, critics should focus on the 26 other recommendations that Mary Portas made about reform of national and local policy that would make a real difference.
Chief among these is the cost of property. The current system of setting business rates is broken. As different retailing models, especially internet-based shopping, are in dramatic growth it is wrong to perpetuate a taxation system that penalises businesses seeking to invest in the high street. We need to look at the way rates increase year on year; the way that rate reliefs are distributed; and the way certain businesses are valued.
We don’t doubt that the government wants to see the retail sector succeed, and we see no merit in being critical for the sake of it, but what we can’t forgive is government ignoring the big challenges even when its own experts are telling it what they are.