Jayne Dowle: Here’s a challenge for TV’s apprentices

I GRANT you that the finer details of business rate finance are not quite as entertaining as watching Lord Sugar put 18 hopeful entrepreneurs through their paces. However, it is strangely coincidental that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces the biggest change to local government funding in more than a quarter of a century just in time for the new series of The Apprentice.

What’s this got to do with a bunch of arrogant individuals you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with? In the world of Lord Sugar and his acolytes, it’s all glamour. All that rushing about in taxis with shiny suits, shiner hair and “business plans” and “proposals” presented on state-of-the-art tablets. All the candidates have their eye on is the prize, the £250,000 awarded to the winner who can persuade Sugar and his panel of interrogators that they have got what it takes.

If only setting up a business was that simple. What we never get to see – because it would make dull television– – is the endless financial pressure 
which any entrepreneur has to go through on a daily basis.

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It’s all very well having a fantastic business idea, but your cupcake 
delivery business, dog-grooming parlour or social media invention is going nowhere unless you can make the books add up.

Ask anyone running a business what their biggest headache is and they will say rates, and rent. I’ve talked to so many people where I live, in Barnsley, who have attempted to open shops and services in the town centre. And time after time they complain that the business rates are so crippling they cannot afford to operate. It’s the same story all over the country. Call it a Catch 22; would-be entrepreneurs either can’t afford the outlay in the first place, or give it a brave attempt and close down within months.

This is no good for business whatsoever. And it’s no good for our town centres either, which as we know, end up littered with empty commercial units which no-one can afford. Under George Osborne’s proposals, local councils will have much more freedom over setting the rates which local businesses will pay. They will also be allowed to keep the proceeds raised by these rates to use as they see fit.

It is, of course, a double-edged sword; those councils which wish to encourage new businesses to start up by offering reasonable terms will not pull in as much revenue as those which choose to set a higher rate. Lower-charging authorities will end up with less to spend on providing services. However, the counter-argument to this is that if more individuals and companies are encouraged to set up businesses because rates are friendlier, all-round prosperity will be encouraged and town centres will thrive again.

Like all matters in business, it is a gamble. The principles of the idea have been much lobbied for by the business community, but it appears that Mr Osborne has made such a major announcement without prior consultation. The British Chambers of Commerce are up in arms because he has done it without asking them first. It would be a shame if a move ends up turning into a Whitehall versus local government farce. This is especially pertinent in our region, which suffers from more than its fair share of town centres left bereft.

It would also be a shame if the Government think that altering the proviso of business rates is a magic wand. Urban regeneration needs much more than this; a crackdown on rent-greedy landlords, a sensible approach to parking, improved public transport, incentives for large “anchor stores” to come to town and generate confidence, encouragement for local councils to site public buildings, office complexes and so on in urban areas rather than on the outskirts of town, and imaginative initiatives which encourage local people to shop local and use local services.

For too long now, issues such as this have been left to local authorities. Let’s have a public debate about parking charges. Let’s talk about why decent public toilets can be a deal-breaker. Let’s find out why towns which can attract a Nando’s and a Costa coffee fare better than those which don’t. And let’s get Sir Alan Sugar to ask his apprentices just what they would do if they found themselves landed with a shop in the middle of a town centre boarded up and bereft of footfall. Then we really would be talking business...