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Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Today’s budget was an opportunity for levelling up – indeed, we were promised that this would be a golden thread running throughout the plans contained within the Government’s red box. However, for communities across this country, the promise of levelling up is unravelling.

It is a budget defined by economic uncertainty. Celebrating a rise in GDP obscures the fact that Britain faces the largest ever increase in inflation. Households face uncertainty over whether they will be able to make ends meet this winter amidst rising bills, and despite the Chancellor’s announcements, high street businesses still face uncertainty on whether they will be able to keep their doors open.

Levelling up has to mean sustaining local economies – the jobs and businesses that make up the backbone of our communities in town centres and high streets. The health and vitality of our high streets is worth fighting for, but the Government has ignored pleas from high streets and communities across the UK for the support they need to thrive, and in too many cases, simply to survive.

Research by the British Retail Consortium shows that burdensome business rates were a factor behind two in three store closures in the last two years. But while these shops are struggling to stay open on our high streets, online retail giants face no such burden – they typically pay far lower business rates on their warehouses and have seen profits boom, especially during the pandemic.

Our current system of business rates is not fit for the 21st Century – so the Chancellor’s proposals to bring in some short-term relief, more frequent revaluations and some incentives for solar panels just won’t cut it. These fall far short of the fundamental reform that our high streets needs, and that their Conservative manifesto promised. With these broken promises and missed opportunities go any hopes of genuinely levelling up those places that need it the most.

This was a real opportunity for the Government to level the playing field between online retailers and high streets shops by scrapping business rates for a fairer, more equal system of taxation. Squandering this opportunity results in another failure to unlock our high streets and give them the financial backing they deserve to be able to compete with their online competitors.

If we had a Labour & Co-operative Government delivering today’s budget, we would have, as set out by our Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, an immediate freeze of business rates to give our high streets a break – not the halfhearted 50% cut discount announced today. We’d have raised the threshold for small business rate relief to give small businesses a discount on their bills while increasing the digital service tax to 12% for the first year and in the longer term putting in place a higher global minimum rate of corporate tax for large multi-nationals.

And, crucially, we would be putting forwards plans for more fundamental reform – scrapping unfair and broken business rates system and replacing them with a new system which protects high streets, incentivises investment and rewarding businesses that reopen the shutters on empty shops.

Both the immediate support we propose and our approach to fundamental reform would shift the burden of business tax towards the online giants. It would target the greatest support at high-street businesses that need it most, and it would support jobs for people across our country. That is what it looks like to tax fairly, spend wisely, and get the economy firing on all cylinders, and that is what our high streets need.

From community businesses to co-operative retailers, our movement is a presence at the heart of so many high streets. And I’m proud, as Chair of the Co-operative Party, that campaigning on business rates reform has long been a core plank of the Co-operative Party’s platform.

As our Unlock the High Street campaign rightly sets out: shuttered shops are not a new problem so the solution cannot be a return to the status quo. It isn’t enough to save our high streets – we must transform them for the better. To do this, and to unlock the potential of our high streets we need to stop penalising local shops with unfair and disproportionate business rates. Tinkering around the edges will not do. We need a braver budget, one which reforms the archaic business rates system to tilt our tax system in favour of high streets and communities.