Business column: Steven Leigh, Head of Policy, Mid Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce

Steven Leigh
Steven Leigh

Government figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government reveal that a swingeing £23.5bn is expected to be collected from business rates in 2016-17.

Businesses in England pay the highest level of property taxes of any nation in the G7 and EU or any OECD country.

The Chancellor’s review of business rates is now long overdue – and will hopefully be published along with the budget on March 16.

Our Chamber has expressed major concerns, and it is to be hoped that the Chancellor will address them - in particular the deep-rooted failings of this outdated and poorly-designed system which hits companies hard before they turn over a single pound.

As a minimum, the review ought to announce the removal of plant and machinery from the ratings system – because it discourages businesses from investing in their premises at a time when we should be actively encouraging investments to support future economic growth.

In addition, we are living in a new era of click-and-collect and internet trading which confounds conventional wisdom regarding consumer spending and retailing.

This is having a profound effect on British high-streets as business rates become unaffordable and vacant shop premises an ever-more common feature of our towns and cities.

The burden of business rates, when combined with the Apprenticeship Levy and the Living Wage, could cripple some companies in the years ahead - and stifle the economic growth which will be necessary to the UK’s sustainable recovery.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that in the current financial year to date (April 2015-January 2016) public sector net borrowing, excluding public sector banks, was £10.6 billion lower than in the same period in 2014 -15.

This gradual improvement leaves public sector net debt, excluding public sector banks, at the end of January 2016 at 82.8 per cent of GDP.

While it seems likely that borrowing in this financial year will be lower than last time, there must still be some uncertainty whether the Autumn Statement forecast for government borrowing (as made by The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)) will be achieved. This is because lower revenues from banking, and the oil and gas sectors, have diminished tax receipts – which is making the task of repairing our public finances a greater challenge.

If we are to achieve a budget surplus by the end of this Parliament then the government must strengthen its finances by boosting business growth.

The latest quarterly international trade outlook has reported that export sales and orders across the manufacturing and services sectors fell significantly in the last quarter of 2015.

Amongst manufacturers, the balance of firms reporting improvements in export sales over the previous three months fell from +10 per cent in Q3 to just +1 per cent.

Export growth also dipped in the services sector, where the sales balance fell three points to +15 per cent, and export orders fell to +9 per cent from +16 per cent.

World challenges in recent months have included diminished growth in China and the US, along with continued weaknessand turmoil in the Eurozone. These issues have made it a difficult time for our exporters.

But whilst the rate of growth has dropped significantly, exports nevertheless continue to grow – a credit and testament to British businesses against the background of global uncertainty.

However, if we are to make inroads into reversing our trade deficit then British firms will need greater practical support from government such as improved access to affordable finance, a skilled workforce and improved infrastructure connections.

These are essential if we are to break into new export markets, for if we don’t we will risk being left behind in the global race.

Since our last policy update the EU debate has occupied centre stage in British politics.

European politicians such as Merkel, Tusk, Lagarde and Hollande have intervened with very strong arguments against Brexit, whist top-ranking British political figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson are now making equally powerful arguments for the Out campaign.

The issue is causing major rifts within the Conservative party. Meanwhile, Labour party members under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn are arguing with

themselves in a contradictory and ambiguous manner about their pro-EU position.

Overall, the present arguments appear to have polarised into scare-tactics for the pro-EU campaigners and complete repudiation of those tactics from the Brexit side.

No doubt the arguments and fall-outs will continue to gather momentum between now and the June referendum.

What is certain is that this decision will be hugely significant for our nation for generations to come, and the British people are entitled to be furnished with hard facts and reliable information lying behind the in/out arguments so that voters will be able to make a logical and informed decision.