Demand the right to keep all our business rates

Before 1990 local authorities were able to keep all the rates they collected locally, both domestic and business rates. Changing that was one of the means by which Thatcher imposed central government controls on local authorities. Writing in the Advertiser David Renard expressed the view that the debate on ‘devolution’ of power in the wake of the Scottish Referendum gave “a unique opportunity to investigate what Councils should do and how much we can prise from the distant hand of Whitehall”.

Fredrick Douglas, a campaigner against slavery, once said that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If anything is to be prised out of Whitehall then there has to be a clear demand. One such demand is that Councils should be able to keep all the business rates they raise locally. According to the Council Leader Swindon collected somewhere in the region of £107 million in business rates last year. However, the (non-education) grant we received was only £64.9 million.

One obvious means of devolving power from Whitehall is for Councils to be able to keep all the business rates they raise. As you can see from the gap between the two figures above, if we could keep all the money we raised then there would be no financial crisis and there wouldn’t have been a proposal to close down 7 Sure Start Centres.

A precedent has been set since Councils can now keep all the rent they receive from their Council tenants. Why should we not keep all our business rates? Given the wide disparities in wealth between different regions there would have to be a central government ‘top-up’ to Councils on the basis of an assessment of levels of wealth, poverty etc. This is what happened before 1990 through the Rate Support Grant.

Ex Council Leader Rod Bluh famously said that behind the label of ‘localism’ the government had carried out “some of the most serious centralisation of power to date”. David Renard said at a Cabinet meeting that he would prefer control to be held locally. So let’s turn the words into action and demand that Councils can keep all the business rates collected instead of them being siphoned off to Westminster. Power concedes nothing without a demand, and a campaign behind the demand.

Martin Wicks

A letter to the Swindon Advertiser October 29th 2014

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