Officials in Rochdale have introduced a pilot scheme to revive the fortunes of its town centre with up to an 80% discount on business rates.
The scheme, which was confirmed on Monday evening, gives businesses moving into an empty shop in selected areas of the town centre an 80% discount on their business rates for the first year, with a further 50% cut in the second year.
The council has set aside £100,000 for the pilot and is targeting independents – including fashion retailers – that do not already have a presence in the town centre with the relief.
Council leader Richard Farnell said: “Traditional town centres, particularly in former industrial towns, have suffered a great deal with a 20 to 30 year decline in their retail centres. We have brought in a raft of new measures that we hope will attract people back into the town centre.”
“We are also asking landlords to offer discounts or rent-free periods and will be the only council in Greater Manchester to introduce free parking for the first three hours after 10am in all town centre car parks from April.
“The more shops we have, the more people will come to the town and this will benefit everyone. Business rates are a significant barrier to new businesses and a key reason why many ultimately fail, particularly in hard-pressed areas like Rochdale.”
Rochdale has a particularly high shop vacancy rate of 22.7%, compared to 13.5% nationally. The town centre has also experienced three years of disruption while the Metrolink from Manchester was extended, which is now complete.
Other councils have used their discretionary relief powers to offer similar schemes, such as up to 100% discount for businesses new to the area in the first 12 months, which Croydon introduced in December last year. Croydon’s relief package has a particular focus on technology and creative industry sectors for office and retail space.
The Rochdale package covers 23 units, which are currently empty, on Yorkshire Street, South Parade, The Walk and Baillie Street and starts in April 2015.
Phil Buckley, manager of Rochdale-based men’s and womenswear independent Denis Hope, said: “This is making steps in the right direction as new shops will definitely be a good thing for the town. We’ve had a few years of tough trading with the economy and the roadworks, but things are now looking more positive in the long-term.”
It comes as retail guru Mary Portas urged the government to take faster action on “crippling” business rates on Tuesday and for local councils to be given the power to take control of empty shops.
A structural review of the business rates system in England was announced in the Autumn Statement earlier this month, with the results due to be published in 2016. The government has also capped the inflation-linked increase in business rates at 2% for 2014-15 and extended the doubling of small business rates relief.
Portas said: “The Autumn Statement introduced some more rate relief measures, but these are just tinkering around the edges.”