Cambridge MP joins call for a reform of rates for city’s retailers
Businesses and political leaders in Cambridge have joined forces to campaign for reform of business rates to help the city recover after Covid.
To mark the latest stage in the reopening, they are calling for a much fairer system to allow the beleaguered high street to compete against online retailers.
The government has offered retailers a holiday from business rates until the end of June, with a two-thirds discount for the rest of the year.
But businesses say only long term reform can help them to a more secure footing as they attempt to rebuild after the pandemic, as government support is withdrawn, retailers face bills of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in business rates, which are based on a property’s rateable value, not how much is earned. It comes at a time when it is uncertain how busy many will be.
Signorelli’s pays around £8,500 a month, or £100,000 a year, in rates for its two restaurants and a delicatessen in The Grafton centre.
Owner Alex Signorelli said: “All us high street businesses have suffered badly during Covid, and with some it’s still touch and go whether they’ll be able to survive.
“The problem with business rates is they’re a huge burden before you even start trying to make a profit. And we don’t yet know how many customers will be prepared to come back to us after Covid.
“The government could really help us by finding a much fairer system, which would allow us the chance to compete with online retailers and rebuild after the pandemic.”
Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner agreed. He said last week: “This is the first weekend that local people can seize the opportunities of indoor dining and I know many Cambridge residents are keen to support local businesses, and get a night off from cooking and eat out.
“But I know too that local businesses continue to face many challenges and that’s why I am calling on the government to reform the business rates system to level the playing field between high street businesses and online giants.”
The government has offered retailers a holiday from business rates until the end of June, with a two-thirds discount for the rest of the year. But businesses say only long-term reform can help them to a more secure footing as they attempt to rebuild after the pandemic.
The call comes after it was revealed that about 10 per cent of the UK’s restaurants have been forced to close for good because of the pandemic, according to a Market Recovery Monitor survey.
For retailers like Signorelli’s, the key ask is for a governmental review of its policy.
“It’s great that Daniel Zeichner has been supportive, let’s see if he can take it further,” says Alex. “It’s not just for us, this is for anyone who has a shop or a business in the city.”
Signorelli’s also operates a delivery service for its produce.
“Before Covid, deliveries were about 15 per cent of our sales, that went up to 85 per cent under Covid, and right now we’re still predominantly takeaway. It’s becoming 50-50 as people become more confident about eating out rather than ordering takeaways.”
The sector also faces a shortage of trained staff.
“We currently employ 20 people,” Alex explains. “It was 36. It’s dropped a lot because of Covid and Brexit. We were importing labour as we didn’t have much luck recruiting locally.
“In Spain, Italy, Greece and even America, being a waiter is seen as a profession, whereas here it’s seen as a stopgap.”
The chair of John Lewis, Dame Sharon Lewis, recently wrote to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, urging him to scrap business rates and introduce a land tax to enable high street retailers to compete with online vendors.