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In the midst of a growing cost of living crisis and the highest inflation rates in 30 years, Prince Charles outlined the government’s priorities for the year ahead as he delivered the Queen’s Speech. The Queen herself was unable to read the announcement due to ill health, with just weeks to go until her Platinum Jubilee.
The speech highlighted some of the 38 laws that ministers intend to pass in the coming year, with the intention to “grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families” according to Prince Charles.
But the independent retail sector has been left feeling underwhelmed by some of the measures announced yesterday, with the FSB insisting that “words should be matched by action”.
FSB national chair Martin McTague explained, “So far, levelling up efforts have been too vague to have any meaningful impact – the time has come for flesh on the bones. As the Government pushes the levelling up agenda over this parliament, it needs to ask itself the questions that matter: Are we genuinely improving high streets? Do community businesses feel empowered to invest and expand? Are we creating enough start-ups to counter the thousands lost over lockdowns?”
Energy crisis and costs
The FSB was pleased with the energy crisis measures promised but still felt that it fell short of what is needed, with Martin commenting, “Energy security has rightly moved up the Government’s agenda in recent months. On the ground, we have a situation where small firms are caught between the consumer price cap and the leverage that big corporates can yield when negotiating contracts. More direct financial support is what will make the difference to our members – reducing the risk that further hikes in utility bills feed through to even higher consumer prices – alongside a Help to Green initiative to incentivise on-site energy generation.
“It’s heartening to see previous commitments around business rates reform and fake reviews taken forward today. On the former, we’re urging the Government to go further: increasing the small business rates relief ceiling to £25,000 to take 200,000 more of the smallest community businesses out of this regressive tax altogether, mostly in levelling-up target areas.”
Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the BRC, also called for the government to go further, explaining, “We welcome efforts to increase the frequency and efficiency of revaluations, to allow the rateable value of properties to better reflect market rates. Nonetheless, the failure to reduce the overall burden of business rates means the bill falls well short of the fundamental reform that is key to unlocking retail investment across the country. Retailers account for 5% of the economy but pay 25% of business rates, this is neither fair nor sustainable.”
Empty high street stores
The so-called ‘death of the high street’ is a major concern for town-based delis, cheesemongers and specialist retailers, who often rely on passer-by trade.
The new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill announced will give more power to councils so they can take control of buildings that are standing empty on the high street.
According to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the new measures, including Compulsory Rental Auctions, will “ensure that landlords auction shops that have been vacant for over a year to prospective tenants, putting buildings to good use.
“The move will create opportunities for new businesses and community groups, paving the way for new jobs to boost employment, strengthening local economies and restoring local pride.”
But Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira, has warned that this idea needs fleshing out, and an actionable plan put into place. He explained, “Whilst we support the idea of bringing empty shops back into use, we need more detail to fully understand how it would work. The government also has to recognise that a shop remains closed because it is unviable – often due to the level of business rates. So, until business rates are fully reformed, initiatives such a levelling up will find it very hard to succeed when it comes to high streets.”
Absence of a Food Bill
The Soil Association noted a key absence in the speech – a Food Bill that would set out a roadmap to strengthen our food system, ensuring good quality food is available for everyone as we experience a cost of living crisis.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, explained, “The absence of a Food Bill in the Queen’s Speech is deeply disappointing. The government’s response to the National Food Strategy is now long overdue, and a Food Bill would represent the best vehicle for delivering its recommendations. We desperately need to overhaul our food system to build resilience in the face of climate and geopolitical turmoil and spark a shift to nature-friendly, agroecological farming that supports healthy and sustainable diets. We fear a half-hearted and disjointed response to the National Food Strategy represents a missed opportunity.
“The climate and nature crises are escalating, but the legislative agenda laid out in this Queen’s Speech suggests our government is more interested in stamping out legitimate protests, forcing through environmentally questionable trade deals, and deregulating unpopular gene-editing technologies, than the important task of reforming our broken food system. As recently highlighted by the IPCC, we cannot reverse the climate and natural crises without significant changes to how we eat, which will also improve the nation’s health – the government must face up to the scale of the challenge and take bold action now.
“With many families struggling to put food on the plate, the absence of a bill to make good food available to all is nothing less than negligent. Of utmost importance is that every child is provided with at least one healthy and sustainable meal each day, with schools and caterers empowered to deliver this.
“It’s essential that the White Paper, when it’s eventually published, commits to the wider implementation of a whole school approach, mandatory accreditation, and universal compliance with school food standards, building on the example set by Food for Life – as called for by the National Food Strategy.”
There are many aspects of the speech to be hopeful about including tackling empty high street premises and prioritising energy security, but the overall consensus is that retailers are left wanting more.