As the political parties start their campaigning in earnest in what could be the closest election for years, Convenience Store takes a look at what they are promising to do for the small business sector
With polling consistently indicating another Hung Parliament, and previously marginal political parties gaining in popularity, many commentators believe it has never been harder to call the outcome of the General Election on May 7. However, it also means there are at least five parties who could play a role in the next government, with the likes of the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Scottish National Party theoretically playing a bit part alongside Labour or the Conservatives.
With so much political choice on offer, C-Store has compiled a General Election guide on small business- and retail-relevant policy pledges to help you make an informed choice on polling day. Not all parties are included - the Greens provided us with little relevant policy - but the most supported among retailers are all here, with up-to-date policies.
But first, here is a reminder of what the coalition government has done, or not done, for small businesses and retailers over the past five years.
Government policies 2010-15
In government, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have cut £2,000 from employers’ National Insurance bills, cut corporation tax from 28% to 20%, capped business rate rises at 2% (last year) following hikes of more than 5%, and increased rate relief for small shops to £1,500. It also raised VAT by 2.5% to 20%.
It has introduced the tobacco display ban and more recently laid down legislation for plain packaging of tobacco products. However, it decided against introducing minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and instead banned below-cost selling of alcohol. Its own impact assessment found that the ban would affect just 1.3% of the total alcohol market. The government has made a series of alcohol duty cuts, but tobacco duty has continued to increase.
Who are you planning to vote for in the General Election?
Lib Dems 7.5%
The National Planning Policy Framework aimed to prioritise town centre retail development, although Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) research shows that 76% of retail space approved under the NPPF is in out-of-town locations.
The government appointed Mary Portas to conduct a review into reviving the high street and implemented a number of her recommendations, including providing funding for dozens of Portas Pilots across the country. However, it ignored her recommendation for the Secretary of State to call in out-of-town planning applications.
In 2012 the government alarmed convenience retailers by relaxing Sunday trading regulations during the London Olympic Games. But retailers’ fears that the regulations would be relaxed permanently did not materialise.
The National Minimum Wage has increased in line with the Low Pay Commission’s recommendations, most recently by an above-inflation 3% to £6.70.
So that’s the past five years. Here’s what the main parties are promising to achieve in the next term.
BUSINESS RATES: The Conservatives have pledged to fundamentally reform business rates so the system “better reflects changes in the value of property”.
They would also substantially raise the proportion of business rates that local areas can keep. “We are at half today - we want to get that to at least two-thirds,” said prime minister David Cameron.
“This government hasn’t really helped the c-store community at all. I’d give them ‘nil points’. From tobacco legislation to business rates, to not levelling the playing field in a number of areas, and then the pathetic fiasco by Mary Portas… if she’s the best the Tories could do then it’s an appalling contribution from them.
“Having said that, I’m leaning towards voting Conservative because I feel Labour is a bit misguided in believing all businesses are a nasty piece of work. But the Tories’ view that wealth trickles down is not working; jobs are being exported and their eyes are always on the balance sheet anyway. It’s a Hobson’s choice really, but when push comes to shove I’ll probably vote Tory.”
Arjan Mehr, Londis Bracknell, Berkshire
TAX: The Conservative leader has ruled out a rise in VAT for the full five years of the next parliament, as well a rise in income tax and National Insurance.
The Tories would raise the tax-free threshold from £10,600 to £12,500 by 2020, “lifting one million of the lowest-paid workers out of tax altogether,” said Cameron.
They will also increase the level at which the 40p rate kicks in, to £50,000.
BUSINESS RATES: Labour will cut and then freeze business rates the following year for 1.5 million small business properties with a rateable value of less than £50,000. The party estimates this will save small businesses an average £400. It also backs the government’s review into business rates.
TAX: Labour says it will reverse the coalition government’s 1% cut in corporation tax, returning the rate to 21%. It pledges to “put small businesses first in line for tax cuts”.
“I’m pushing towards voting Labour, which I normally do. The government hasn’t followed through on its promises, and with all the cuts people have less money to spend around here. I haven’t seen any more jobs out there, or an improvement in the economy. We’re no better off than we were in 2010. Labour will help our customers, which in turn helps us.”
Bay Bashir, Lifestyle Express Middlesbrough
PAY: Labour will ban zero-hour contracts for employees on regular hours after they have been 12 weeks in a job. It says it will ensure the minimum wage rises to £8 an hour over the course of the next parliament.
BANKING: Labour will establish a British Investment Bank and a network of regional banks in a bid to boost lending for small businesses. It says it will increase competition in the banking sector with at least two new challenger banks and a market share cap to ensure the market stays competitive.
REGULATIONS: A new Small Business Administration will have a remit to ensure regulations are designed with small firms in mind, says Labour leader Ed Miliband. It will co-ordinate work across government to benefit smaller businesses and cut regulation.
ENERGY: Labour will freeze energy bills until 2017, claiming it will save a typical business £1,800. While bills are frozen, it promisies to reset the energy market to make it more transparent and competitive, and give the energy regulator the power to cut prices and a duty to act in time for this winter.
ALCOHOL: Labour will crack down on high-strength, low-cost alcohol products “such as cheap 7.5% ciders sold in large plastic bottles”. It will push for improved alcohol labelling so that all alcoholic beverages include clear and visible information.
TOBACCO: Labour would immediately introduce standardised packaging of tobacco products. It says this would “halt the industry’s increasingly sophisticated methods of recruiting new, young smokers”.
It will continue to monitor the emerging evidence on the appropriate use of devices such as e-cigarettes in smoking cessation and “take action if required”.
HIGH STREETS: The party says it will give communities more control over their high streets, with powers to stop the spread of payday lenders and to decide whether they want to limit the number of gambling or fast food outlets in their area. It says it will “empower communities to work with businesses and landlords to build town centres in which people want to live, shop, work and invest”.
BUSINESS RATES: The Lib Dems will “continue to reform business tax to ensure it stays competitive”, making small and medium-sized enterprises the priority for any business tax cuts. In England it will review business rates, “which are a disproportionate burden on smaller businesses”.
TAX: “We’ll ensure our tax system stays competitive, making SMEs the priority for any business tax cuts, and we’ll continue to focus on building a modern, flexible workforce,” Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg recently told the Federation of Small Businesses conference.
BANK LENDING: The Lib Dems would expand the British Business Bank and would encourage the growth of crowd funding and alternative finance models.
It would promote a new community banking sector to support SMEs.
REGULATIONS: The Lib Dems would establish a new Regulation Advisory Board to reduce regulatory uncertainty and remove unnecessary business regulation.
The Lib Dems would extend the 5p plastic bag levy, due to come into force in October for large retailers, to all retailers.
BUSINESS RATES: UKIP “aspires” to cutting business rates to a more realistic rate. “Part of cutting costs to small traders would also come if we were out of the EU and free from its red tape strangulation,” says Margot Parker, UKIP MEP for the East Midlands.
BANK LENDING: UKIP believes that banks should not be so prescriptive in lending to small businesses, particularly those banks which were bailed out and are still partly in public ownership.
As such, it would encourage retail banking reforms and encourage the sector to look again at “the plethora of additional charges which are often levied on small businesses,” says Parker.
ENERGY MARKET: UKIP would introduce “a sensible energy policy” which ends fuel poverty and brings down costs for consumers and shopkeepers.
“We need to abandon hopelessly expensive renewables, exploit lower-cost energy sources such as coal, and facilitate investment in affordable energy technologies,” says Parker.
TOBACCO: UKIP is against plain packaging which “does not work - it hasn’t in Australia for instance,” says Parker. It fears that the legislation would also increase the black market in cigarettes.
HIGH STREET: UKIP pledges 30 minutes of free parking in town centres.
The party says it would also look at making it easier to get property re-zoned as ‘commercial’ and to help small businesses find viable locations.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY
BUSINESS RATES: The SNP continues to maintain the Small Business Bonus Scheme, which it says has meant two in every five business properties across Scotland have benefited from zero or reduced rates.
FINANCE AND BANKING: The SNP will press the UK government to introduce effective legal protection to ensure small businesses are paid, and paid on time.
The new Scottish Business Development Bank will work with SMEs, and the financial markets, to support high growth businesses.
HIGH STREET: The Scottish government has formulated the Town Centre Action Plan (TCAP) which seeks to prioritise town centre investment by requesting that public bodies weigh up the potential impact of closing town centre facilities, against the benefits of keeping these towns vibrant.
The Fresh Start Scheme was introduced to bring empty properties back into use through up to 50% business rate relief.
“The government has not taken a regional approach to their policies. How can they consider a £6.50 minimum wage to be okay in London as well as in Newcastle, where living standards are so much lower? It’s the same with business rates.
“I’m going to vote SNP, who will probably wipe out all the other parties in Scotland. They will represent the interests of Scotland, yet the main parties have ruled out working with them in government. We’ve agreed to be part of the UK so we should have a say. The other parties’ attitudes will put a lot of people off.”
Sid Ali, four Nisa stores, Aberdeenshire