It has been a bad year for the High Street. A ceaseless stream of closures has dominated the retail news agenda.
Restaurants as well as shops have fallen by the wayside. Poundworld, which has a shop in Canterbury High Street, is in administration.
Chimichanga just a few yards away has closed. So did the vape bar in St Peter’s Street. And so, too, did the famous Deeson’s restaurants in Sun Street.
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Some commentators have pointed the finger at Canterbury’s retail unit rents. But Deeson’s owner Sam Deeson rejected this, arguing that rent was one of the few constants while other costs rose.
And now many are citing business rates as the true scourge of the High Street – especially as they are a financial burden online retailers can to a large extent avoid.
“I’d be in the city centre if wasn’t for the sort of business rates that are charged there,” said newsagent and sweet shop owner Jon Caggiano.
His shop Auntie Ammie’s General Store operates out of the former Dover Street News just stone’s throw from the City Wall – but crucially outside it.
“You are looking at business rates of £60,000 per year just over there in St George’s Street,” Jon went on.
“And that’s before you pay for anything else such. Then you still need to make a profit before you do anything else.”
But while city centre businesses or even those in urban areas face exacting levels of business rates, online retailers operating from industrial units or remote locations are spared such costs.
The Centre for Retail Research has discovered that average high street shop spends 2.3% of turnover on business rates while online firms pay just 0.6 per cent. It described the discrepancy as “scandalous”.
Director Joshua Bamfield said: “It’s one thing to talk about a level playing field but the way rates are organised is such a burden on high streets that it’s one of the things driving shops out of business.”
Analysts believe that with shopping trends shifting towards online retailers, it is tilting the balance in their favour – especially where they are able to offer the same products at lower prices and delivered to the door.
City councillor and city centre businessman Ben Fitter-Harding believes the time for reform is may be nigh.
“There’s a strong argument for changing the business rates landscape,” said the Conservative, who chairs the council’s property and regeneration committee.
“In the past the high street was the portal to retail and so, to an extent, higher rates were justified.
“As the appetite for shopping shifts in favour of online ordering and home delivery, retention of the same breadth of choice on the high street is hard to imagine without tax reform.
“Policy needs to reflect the benefit of keeping retail in the mix on our high streets, and help facilitate a vibrant shopping and experience-based offering moving forward.”
Debbie Barwick, who runs clothes shop Revivals in St Peter’s Street, adds that within the city centre, the business rate system is uneven.
She said: “The big businesses can pay them, but it’s the smaller ones that struggle. That’s what puts so many of us in jeopardy.”
Business rates are collected by the city council, but set by the Valuation Office, an agency of the government.