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Support for the High Street

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018

Budget 2018 announced our plan for the high street, which provides £1.5 billion of support to fund local areas as they make their high streets fit for the future. The plan includes a £675 million future high streets fund, planning reforms, a high streets taskforce, support for community assets and a cut by a third to the business rates bills of independent retailers for two years from April 2019, saving businesses almost £900 million.

Although I welcome the measures that the Chancellor just mentioned—they are helping high streets greatly—the business rates system is currently not working for high streets. Will the Chancellor therefore consider a type of transaction tax that would level the playing field between online businesses and those based on premises, and also enable businesses such as Starbucks and Amazon to start to pay their fair share of tax?

My hon. Friend makes a point that has been raised on many occasions. There is concern about the way the business rates system works. In 2016, we conducted a fundamental review of business rates that agreed that property-based taxes were easy to collect, difficult to avoid and stable. There was no consensus around any replacement for business rates. My hon. Friend will know that separately the Government announced in the Budget a digital services tax to ensure that digital businesses pay tax that reflects the value that they derive from UK users.

Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating Barnstaple, where the high street has bucked the national trend? We have fewer vacant premises and increasing footfall. Will the Government continue to support retailers, especially the smaller independent businesses that are the backbone of our economy?

Yes, I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Barnstaple on the success of its high street. Of course, there are many successful high streets throughout the United Kingdom, even at a time when the high street overall is under pressure. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that Devon’s success does not stop at the high street; it has seen a wider economic achievement, with unemployment across Devon down by no less than 57% since 2010 and down by 25% over the past year.

A buoyant high street is absolutely vital for communities such as mine in Batley and Spen. The Treasury Committee report released today suggests that northern towns are more exposed to Brexit trade-related risks than others. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us what has been put in place to support communities such as mine that will be hardest hit post Brexit?

The answer, of course, is to ensure that we leave the European Union in a way that supports our economy across the United Kingdom. That means a negotiated deal that allows us to have a smooth exit and retain a close trading partnership with our European neighbours in the future.

Some 51,000 shops on the UK’s high streets closed in the past year. Local businesses in even successful places such as Kendal and Windermere struggle because they are forced to pay huge taxes while mega-online retailers get away with paying next to no tax at all. Will the Chancellor give a well-deserved Christmas present to the high street by halving business rates there paid for by taxing internet firms on the basis of their turnover, not just their profits?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place for the Budget, but I did in fact announce a digital services tax based on turnover. I also announced a reduction of one third in the business rates for independent retailers. I am very happy to have a meeting with him and explain the changes in detail.

I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for mentioning the Treasury Committee report published this morning. The Treasury Committee is about more than Brexit, as I hope this House is too, and next week we will be holding a joint Committee session with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on business rates. I am sure that the Financial Secretary is looking forward to his evidence session greatly.

I see the right hon. Gentleman nodding.

Business rates are an issue for retailers, and there are some simple things that could be changed now. Does the Chancellor agree, for example, that, for many retailers, their busiest period is Christmas when they could perhaps agree to pay more in business rates and then pay less in periods when they are less busy, so, overall, the same amount is paid, but there is flexibility in payment?

If my right hon. Friend is asking whether there is anything that local authorities can do to help with the cash-flow challenges of seasonally based businesses, I am very happy to take that away and look at it and see whether there is anything that we can do to help in that way. The challenge, of course, is that business rates raise £25 billion a year and are a vital part of our overall tax system. If we are to change them, we must find a sustainable way of replacing them.

The Chancellor does not like it when I use what he calls my “synthetic passion”, so, very quietly, may I beg him to take very seriously indeed where we are as a nation? It looks like we are heading for financial meltdown: people are losing their confidence in this country—[Interruption.] People are losing their confidence. My high street retailers—the big people and the small people—have their heads in their hands, and householders see a real likelihood of a 30% drop in their home value. Will he do something to stop this madness?

There are a couple of points there. First, I should just say to the hon. Gentleman that I was actually congratulating him the other day on his display of synthetic anger, which is one of the best in the House. On the wider point, the high street is facing challenges because of the uptake of online retailing across the UK at a faster rate than in any other large economy. That means that our high streets will have to adapt. The Government cannot save the high street from the need to change. What they can do is support it as it goes through that process of change.

22. I am currently working with Fylde Borough Council and St Anne’s Town Council on a package of measures to regenerate the town of St Anne’s in my constituency. Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer meet me briefly in order to talk through how we can best take advantage of the excellent package of measures that he put forward in his Budget? (908144)

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary is the expert on this matter and he might find a meeting with him more fruitful, but either one of us is very happy to meet him.

Many of the shops and firms located on the high street are represented by the Federation of Small Businesses. Has the Chancellor seen what the FSB has said about the current Brexit position? Its chair has said:

“Planning ahead has now become impossible for a lot of firms as we simply don’t know what environment we’ll be faced with in little more than 100 days’ time…the economic warning signs are now flashing red.”

The Chancellor knew full well in our debate last week that the Prime Minister’s deal was not going to receive the support of the House. Is it not only right that he is straight with her by telling her that businesses cannot face any more uncertainty and that a decision on the deal cannot be delayed and put off until late January, as some around her are suggesting?

I would be the first to agree that businesses need an end to uncertainty and clarity about the future, but frankly I think that the shadow Chancellor is probably the last person who should give us that lecture, because his policy agenda has been designed to create uncertainty and a lack of clarity for business in the future. What the Prime Minister is doing—absolutely rightly—is making a last attempt to see whether she can get further concessions from our partners in the European Union, which is clearly the desire of this House. She will come back and report to the House when she has done so.

Both sides of the House have to address the seriousness of the situation we face. The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:

“Firms are looking on with utter dismay at the ongoing saga in Westminster”.

Today’s Treasury Committee report is devastating in its criticisms of the way in which the Government have sought to assess options not even on the table. A month ago, the Chancellor committed his support to a deal that guaranteed frictionless trade with the EU. Will he now be absolutely straight with the Prime Minister and tell her that unless she comes back with a deal that does fulfil his promise of frictionless trade, it will not succeed in protecting our economy and could not be supported?

The right hon. Gentleman can practise his synthetic concern at the Dispatch Box, but the remedy lies in his hands. There is a deal on the table that will end the uncertainty and allow this country to move on, and our polling shows that that is exactly what the British people want. All he has to do is get behind it, vote for the Prime Minister’s deal and we can all move on.

I say very gently to the Chancellor, to whom I have been listening with great care, that it is quite difficult to vote for something if there is not a vote. I am only trying to help him; it is a point that is so blindingly obvious that I am surprised that I have to state it, but manifestly I do.