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Business rates could be a key election issue

Ed Cooke, Director of policy and public affairs, British Council of Shopping Centres.

For many of us that have campaigned for too long around the impact of rising business rates on the productivity and growth potential of the retail sector, the increased political appetite to talk about these issues is very encouraging.

We know politicians recognise business rates as an issue for the sector - they tell us when we meet in private in Westminster. They also tell us they care deeply about retailing as an industry, for all the obvious job creation and innovation benefits it brings.

Yet rarely is rhetoric matched with action. Conference season to date has seen two main political parties make announcements on business rates - with the Liberal Democrats suggesting a more radical overhaul of land taxes
to Labour’s more temporary freeze for small businesses - both doing it at their party conferences in significant speeches and, particularly in Brighton with Labour last week, to rapturous applause.

As I sat in the conference hall listening to Ed Miliband’s rates announcement, I was surprised and pleased at the reactions of the party activists.

I had assumed support for action on business rates would be a minority interest for Labour Party supporters - many continue to not fully comprehend the impact this tax is having on high streets.

I was wrong. They were delighted by the announcement, as was I by their reaction.

But in Manchester, the Conservatives remained steadfastly silent - aside from the occasional nods of acceptance in conference bars. However, two out of three main parties isn’t bad and we have certainly succeeded in making this a key election issue.

The challenge is now to turn this opportunity into a system of raising money to pay for local services that works for councils, businesses and, most crucially, local communities.

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