The Harrogate Advertiser Series news team took to the streets this month as part of the campaign demanding the government overhauls the business ratings system.
Supported by Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones (Con), the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said there will be a review of the system, but the Harrogate Advertiser Series and other sister titles in Johnston Press are pressing for this to come earlier than 2017, when the revaluation is scheduled.
Shops across Harrogate town centre, from Cold Bath Road to Commercial Street, this proposal is widely supported by the business community who say universally that they are feeling the pinch when the rates bill comes through the letterbox.
Sophie Hartley, 29, owner of Sophie Likes on Beulah Street, said: “I only opened in March and I just accepted business rates as something that you have to pay, and people just get on with it - there is nothing you can do to stop it, but it is my biggest cost apart from my rent and really I am not quite sure what I get in return or how it is spent.
“I would like to see a bit more communication of what the money is spent on and more of a community get-together with the council about it, because obviously they need the money.”
Sophie, like many other business owners, said she doesn’t understand what she pays rates for or what she gets in return.
“I am in a great location but I don’t get my rubbish collected and we don’t get the Christmas lights, so I’m not quite sure what we get apart from the fact that we are in Harrogate town centre,” she said.
“At the end of the day you have got to pay it, but it’s not just a random payment and if you are a little bit late with one payment you lose the ability to pay monthly.
“Harrogate is known for its independent shops and I always get lots of tourists, but it is hard and rates won’t help people who are struggling.”
This was a common theme.
Peter Waddington, 44, co-owner of Illingworth Hardware on Cold Bath Road, said: “If a business isn’t very busy it is a big outlay and I do feel sorry for most of the smaller businesses who are not particularly busy. But everyone has got to pay it.
“Considering the money you pay for rates you don’t get a lot of services, and refuse collection isn’t included.”
And Gemma Hayes, 38, owner of the Harrogate Cheeseboard on Commercial Street, said: “We have to pay for our refuse collection separately, so at least include some other services because that is another expense.
“We need smaller businesses on the street and you have to support them. We have to fight to get ourselves known as well and we provide the Christmas lights and hanging baskets ourselves.
“Either balance the rates or include more perks.”
The leader of Harrogate Borough Council Coun Richard Cooper (Con) said the council is not responsible for how much businesses have to pay or the value of premises, rather it administers billing and collection.
The local authority is also tasked with ensuring all relevant properties are paying the correct level of rates and can retain about five per cent of what is collected to support local services, paying a proportion to the Leeds City region.
Coun Cooper said: “There is a lack of understanding behind what rates are for. People think that because the council collects them that the council then spends them and that is entirely not the case. The council collects the police and the fire service council tax elements but it doesn’t run the police or fire services.
“If we didn’t have business rates there would be no grass cutting on the Stray, no litter picking in the town centre, no CCTV, and no street cleaning. That is what happens when the money is collected for business rates.”
Coun Cooper welcomed the government’s commitment to review the business ratings system in 2017 but said there were already changes going ahead at a local level.
For example, the council can now keep some of the money raised through business rates to spend on economic development initiatives if the number of businesses paying rates increases.
He said: “Changes have been made, changes are going to be made, and I think changes need to be made.
Other concerns raised by business owners include the fairness of how business rates are calculated and the failure of a system that allows companies to prey on businesses suffering with increasing overheads.
Liz Cluderay, 37, co-owner of Butterfly Kisses on Oxford Street, said: “There are lots of companies out there offering to help you and we have fallen foul of one of them.
“The system is flawed because it is opening up a gap to these companies who take advantage of small retailers who want, but don’t have the resources, to make a claim so they use these companies and they are getting shafted.
“If the system was more transparent we would be able to see what we get ourselves.”
Ben Stothard, 28, co-owner of AP and K Stothard & Sons pet shop on Commercial Street, said: “Obviously there is a squeeze on independent stores as it is and we find that rates are quite a lot to have to pay out.
“We have quite a long but narrow shop so the breakdown is relatively unfair, but it is just black and white to them.”
However, the business rates relief initiative offered by the government which, for small businesses with a rateable property value of less than £12,000, means a reduced rate to pay, was welcomed.
Businesses with a rateable value of £6,000 or less will get 100 per cent relief until March 2015, while the rate of relief will gradually decrease from 100 per cent for properties with a rateable value between £6,001 and £12,000.
This includes Books For All on Commercial Street and owner Jenny Smart, 45, was very supportive of the scheme.
The Harrogate Advertiser Series, with our sister Johnston Press titles, is demanding that the Government launches a complete overhaul of the business ratings system - an outdated formula that is crippling our High Streets.
Visit www.change.org/p/uk-government-launch-an-immediate-review-of-the-business-rates-system-in-england-freezing-rates-in-the-interim and sign our petition. Share with friends and family and spread the word.