Bookshops are asking to be given the same business-rate relief as pubs, arguing they help to drive social cohesion in a similar way to drinking establishments.
In the March 2017 budget, pubs with a rateable value of less than £100,000 were offered £1,000 off their rate bill, with the relief recently extended by a year to 2019. At the time, the government estimated the measure would help 90% of British pubs, which are closing at a rate of 18 a week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
Now the Booksellers Association (BA) is calling for the same rate relief to be afforded to bricks-and-mortar bookshops, arguing they deserve it because they have a community and cultural value on the high street. With more than 60% of indies subject to the business rate tax, the trade body predicts the measure could "make a huge difference" to more than 500 independent bookshops in the UK.
Meryl Halls, m.d. at the BA, said: "We know from our members that business rates are one of the biggest and most problematic costs—[bookshops] are already running on very thin margins. We aim to make ever clearer to government the clear link between bookshops and healthy communities and thriving, diverse high streets, and to make sure that the government acknowledges—as it has for pubs—the crucial role bookshops play in the cultural, social and economic landscape of their communities, by granting them the same exemptions as pubs have received."
Halls said the exemption would cost local authorities "relatively modest amounts" but could "make the difference between a community having a bookshop or not", adding: "We urge government to invest in the bookshops of Britain, and ensure that we lose no more of these crucial cultural assets off our high streets."
The campaign will be officially launched at a World Book Day event at the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday (12th June) by Nic Bottomley, BA president and owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. A supporting Change.org petition will launch on 18th June, during Independent Bookshop Week. The move follows years of campaigning on the business rates issue by the BA.
Daunt Books in Marylebone has been hit with a business rates increase of £50,000.
Booksellers have been given hope their campaign may be successful after Penguin Random House chairman Baroness Rebuck took up the cause, lobbying government over the issue. In a session in the House of Lords at the end of April, she said: "My Lords, none of us wants our high streets to become ghost towns. Bookshops are also cultural hubs and play a vital role as community and learning spaces. Will the government now consider giving bookshops the same rate relief that is given, rightly, to many community pubs, and thus avoid an estimated one in four closures in future?" Lord Henley, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, said her point was "one that could be considered".
When asked by The Bookseller, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government would not confirm if the rate relief was being considered, instead pointing to previous rate relief measures. "Bookshops and our high streets are at the heart of our communities, and to help them thrive we have introduced over £9bn worth of business rate support so many small companies now pay no rates," the spokesperson said. "As part of this, we have provided £300m for councils to offer discretionary business rate relief to support companies in their area, and this could include bookshops."
While the number of independent bookshops on UK high streets increased for the first time in a decade last year, albeit by just one, overall the number of indies has plummeted by nearly 1,000—more than half—in the past 22 years from 1,894 in 1995 to 868 as of last year (2017). And last year, the BA warned Treasury chief secretary David Gauke that planned increases to rates bills, following property revaluations, would result in many businesses being "absolutely crippled", with some bookshops seeing huge hikes. Daunt Books in Marylebone was hit with a 100% increase, in effect a rise of £50,000. Camden Lock Books in north London, saw its rates go up by 10%, with owner Jason Burley saying at the time it could force him into early retirement.
In response to the BA’s new campaign, Burley said he supported putting pressure on the government to reduce business rates for bookshops, but felt that a £1,000 a year discount was not enough to make a difference. "Our fixed costs mean that the effect of a £1,000 discount would be virtually negligible. It is not going to encourage young people to open bookshops," he said. "My argument is that independent bookshops make a very real and significant contribution to the community, in terms of literacy, working with schools, hosting events and [being] a safe space for families, and we should be able to have the same rate relief afforded to charity shops, of between 80% and 100%."
However, Bottomley argued that a £1,000 a year discount would potentially help "a lot" of indie bookshops. "Obviously it would be wonderful if you could convince the government to eradicate business rates altogether for bookshops, but you have to be a little bit realistic," he said. "This is the starting point for a discussion. I think to a lot of businesses that would be a big help." He added: "E-books have plateaued, but a constant source of pain for booksellers over the past five years has been rents and rates. The BA, as a trade body, cannot do anything about rents, but we can point out to the government the issue with rates."
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