Changing from the ground up

Perhaps the most compelling narrative from the 2019 election was of people living outside of big cities and the South East, conveying a sense of chronic under-investment in the fabric of their towns, villages, estates and neighbourhoods. If Britain’s future after leaving the EU is going to be built from these communities up,  pretty good place to start is with the businesses that have kept on serving these places where others have left. What remains in estates and villages up and down the UK is the range of goods and services offered once by the nostalgic parade of specialist stores, but now all under one roof housing a Post Office or other payments, parcel and banking services, an off licence, newsagent, maybe a hot food counter, sometimes even a collection point for repeat prescriptions or somewhere to drop off dry cleaning and of course daily groceries.

There’s little argument from policy-makers when we talk about the value we bring to the places we trade: convenience stores are rated by consumers as the local service with the most positive impact on their area, partly because we’re often the only service left and without us over two-thirds of customers in rural areas would have to travel several miles to access the same services. But making the policy decisions that help sustain these businesses in preference to high profile projects … that’s not always as well-received. It’s sexier to be associated with A380s and bullet trains than it is to hitch your wagon to frozen peas and free cash machines, but we’re arguing that these community services are more relevant to most people’s lives

In his first budget, Sajid Javid can set the table for growth led by grassroots investment with some strikingly straight forward but crucially important policy announcements. First up, ensuring the business rates system works to one simple principle: businesses shouldn’t be taxed more just because they invest. Currently, if a local shop adds a food to go counter, a free to use ATM or other infrastructure, their rates bill goes up. Why? If a business makes more of its property, it shouldn’t affect their business rates. And if this tax on investment deprives a community of more services, that a business wants to provide at no cost to the taxpayer … that’s a nonsensical economic and social policy decision that will cost far more to try to correct.

Another thing the communities outside the bubble need are secure, local, flexible jobs. Convenience stores provide 405,000 of them, and while they’re often part time jobs at or very close to the National Living Wage, the flexibility of these jobs works for people who need to juggle employment with studying, childcare or senior care commitments. What’s better: businesses that offer these secure jobs with flexibility on the employees’ terms, or gig economy jobs around which workers can’t plan and budget for their families? The Chancellor will savour the cheers from his benches for re-announcing National Living Wage increases, but if he wants to do this while helping good employers, he should offer some help to affected businesses. Raising the threshold for paying employer NICs to a similar level to the income tax personal allowance wouldn’t come anywhere close to offsetting the costs of National Living Wage increases, but it would a signal that businesses will be supported if they’re expected to bear the costs of government policy.

So onto the third and final priority for the budget - turning an election pledge into a policy that works for the communities who voted for it. 20,000 more police officers will be a welcome sight to businesses that suffered  a torrent of violent incidents last year, but two more things need to happen to make our members feel safer. Firstly, those new police officers have to be visible in the villages and estates where people live and where our members trade. Secondly, the investment in front line officers has to be backed up by resources for the court system so that violent offenders are brought to justice, and in investment in rehabilitation and treatment services that get people out of the cycle of reoffending. More police: good. More arrests of people who attack our members and their colleagues: excellent. More people who get repeatedly picked up and dropped by the justice system, left on a downward spiral to a lifetime of offending: pointless.

These are three policies that promote investment, secure jobs and make communities safer in the places that everyone in British politics is falling over themselves to align with. Yes, they’re three policies that will help the businesses we represent, and you would expect that. But when so many otherwise forgotten communities are served only by local shops, it is those communities that will benefit in the long term.

An abridged version of this blog appears on PoliticsHome

This entry was posted by Chloe on Wed, 26/02/2020 - 12:59