Chief Executive's Blog: Small Business Hustings

I’m really buzzing after a great hustings event today run by ACS with our friends at the Federation of Small Businesses.  After a general election campaign that has often seen politicians lurching from loudhailer sloganeering to robotic repetition of focus group-tested messages, with some pretty poor TV debates thrown in, today’s event saw my faith restored in good quality, substantive debate on the issues that matter to small shops, small businesses, and the communities we all serve.

David Gauke, the Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Liberal Democrats’ business lead Baroness Susan Kramer, and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell all took questions head on, revealed some welcome consensus about the importance of the businesses in the room, and some important differences in the policies they would adopt.  You can see some of the highlights on social media and on the ACS YouTube channel.  I challenged the panellists in my opening statement to share what they would do to tackle business rates, employment costs and crime, and here’s what I took from the debate.

On business rates, all of the parties went on record committing to a fundamental review of the system, and all of them talked about the disparities between on line and bricks and mortar businesses.  Forecourt retailer Steve Highland got the key point here across: if you invest in your business, your business rates bill goes up, and that is a bad signal to be sending the very businesses that we need to drive investment and growth in the economy.  It’s this perverse incentive that whoever forms the next government needs to start by looking at.

There was also relative consensus about giving councils more powers to reduce business rates to promote high streets and generate growth, which is a great principle, but tellingly no-one could come up with an example of how a council had done this, suggesting that the powers to give discretionary rate relief (which we strongly support) aren’t making a practical difference yet.  In John McDonnell’s view, councils’ room for manoeuvre is so limited due to funding cuts that they aren’t likely to give any of their scarce resources away in business rates relief, so the budget announcement of a central government fund to allow councils to do exactly this looks like a well-targeted measure to me.

On wages, all parties are proposing an increase in the statutory minimums paid to staff, but Labour want these increases to be steeper, reaching £10 by 2020.  That would be tough for local shops to afford, and we know that businesses respond to these additional costs by reducing staff hours and investment.  We agreed with Susan Kramer on this; there needs to be an objective process for setting minimum wage rates, rather than it being a political football.

On crime, John McDonnell linked crime in high streets to reduced investment in community policing.  I think local shops would agree that more police presence would help to deter and detect crime, but I would actually put a challenge back to our members: where you have police officers and PCSOs near you store, do you know them, engage with them and talk about how to tackle problems in and around your store?

The biggest thing I took from the debate was this: all three parties are taking small business and local shop issues seriously, and all of them recognise our importance in their communities.  ACS is not a party political organisation, so you make your own mind up, and you can refer to our guide on the election manifestos.  Most importantly, there’s still time to make your voice heard locally, to get to know your next MP while they are most receptive. 

This entry was posted by Chris on Fri, 02/06/2017 - 14:27