It’s on the House

The new campaign from the Booksellers Association to get bookshops the same business rate relief that pubs can claim comes as a welcome step, the latest in a long and dogged run of campaigning by the trade body on the rates issue. Launched next week at the Houses of Parliament, the new initiative will see the BA making the strong case for bookshops to be properly recognised for the cultural and social contribution they make to the high street, and given concrete support that backs that up.

Bookshops are community hubs, and their influence can spread widely though their neighbourhood: reaching into schools, promoting children’s literacy, acting as a focus for events like World Book Day, as well as bringing families and community groups together for readings and storytelling—all the more important now that some neighbourhoods have lost their library spaces. Who wants to live among hollowed-out high streets where only the betting shops and coffee emporiums thrive? Bookshops bring benefits well beyond the simple provision of business and employment, yet in recent years many have been left to struggle with a punitive double whammy of rising
rents and rates.

The relief the BA is campaigning for is, of itself, significant, but it is also slender: pubs are eligible for just £1,000 off their business rates bill during two tax years, and only if they have a rateable value of less than £100,000. Compare that with the local tax relief of up to €20,000 for Italian indies, announced last autumn to stem a rash of closures. (And France, by the way, has for years offered tax exemptions to independent bookshops who qualify for a "quality label" through excellent stock and service).

There are other caveats to the current campaign: over 500 shops are likely to benefit from the measure, estimates the BA, but not all. The stubborn issue of business rates—which sees bricks and mortar outlets consistently struggling with a burden Amazon doesn’t have to pay—needs root and branch reform; this latest measure could be seen as a small sticking plaster on a badly bleeding wound.

But as the BA’s new president Nic Bottomley says, this is just the start of the conversation. Launching the campaign in the Houses of Parliament—following a supportive speech from PRH chair Baroness Rebuck in the House of Lords—takes the message directly to government and raises the profile specifically of bookshops in the long-running debate over the future of the high street. One first victory in getting recognition for the extra community value bookshops offer may well pave the way to more.